Cannabis and Racism

Written by Amiah Taylor

I wear my hair in dreadlocks, a style that has deep lineage in the Black community. How you wear your hair may seem arbitrary if you happen to have the privilege of existing within the gilded cage of Eurocentric beauty standards. However, as a person of color, a Black woman, I had to think about the
implications of my hairstyle on my hireability, my perceived professionalism, and my overall personal image.

I struggled with a dilemma many of my peers probably didn’t have to grapple with: will I look like a pothead?

It’s a game of association really. Dreadlocks. Bob Marley. Rastafarianism. Marijuana.

Now, this question has nothing to do with how things should be or how society should be. It only deals in the cold reality that as a recipient of the white gaze I am constantly on guard of resembling a stereotype too closely.

After all, just by the virtue of being Black, I’m both a person and a projection. The mascot for food stamps and other public assistance programs. The poster child for teenage pregnancy. At the age of nineteen, working as a cashier in a department store, a white woman greeted me and wished me a happy
Mother’s Day. Then, she asked me not if I had children but how many. The distinction is important there.

As a Black woman, part of my image is up to me and the other half is simply filled in by the assumptions of the world.

So of course, it speaks to a level of privilege that women who don’t look like me can proudly say things like, “I’m a microdosing mommy.” Or even smoke weed in non-legal states in broad daylight, seemingly with impunity.

There’s a racism that is inherent in the cannabis industry that makes weed seem edgy and fun for some people and like a vehicle of harm for others. It’s the same joint either way, so what’s the line of demarcation that makes one bag of weed “evidence” and the other, easy entertainment?

I’m reminded of this one episode of Sex and the City where Carrie is devastated after a breakup and she is caught by an NYPD officer smoking a joint on a street corner. The officer begins to arrest her for the crime but then she is saved by her friends who dash over to plead her case. They beg the cop not to take
her to the station because she’s just been broken up with, in the cruelest way possible, through a hastily scribbled post-it message. And because of the cruelty she’d already experienced that day, the cop let Carrie off with a warning.

I want to ask what would’ve happened in that episode if Carrie had been an African-American woman? Would the post-it still have been a get-out-of-jail-free card or would she have been arrested? Here’s a more accurate question, how much would Black Carrie’s life have been derailed by that one moment of
poor judgment? The same joint in a Black woman’s hands would’ve led to drastically different consequences.

African-American people are at least four times more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts for marijuana possession in the United States. But, Carrie gets away with it despite New York’s zero tolerance policy. Why? As Sex and the City actress Cynthia Nixon said, “80% of New Yorkers arrested for marijuana are Black or Latino. The reality is that for white people, marijuana has effectively been
legal for years.”

It wasn’t the innate destructiveness or harmfulness of cannabis that got it outlawed in the United States. It was rigid assumptions about Black people. How Black people should behave and what they ought and ought not to do. Marijuana laws were just another facet of a racist system trying to control us. In 1937, the
Marihuana Tax Act was passed and the man who spearheaded the bill was Harry Anslinger, a jazz-hating racist, and fear monger.

According to Business Insider, “Harry Anslinger took the scientifically unsupported idea of marijuana as a violence-inducing drug, connected it to black and Hispanic people, and created a perfect package of terror to sell to the American media and public [...] He also created a narrative around the idea that cannabis made black people forget their place in society.”

You can fill in the blank as to where Black people were “supposed” to be if a plant that made them feel happy, giggly, creative, and friendly made them “step out of place.”

According to The Guardian, Harry Anslinger allegedly said, “Their [Black people’s] Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”

So at the core of marijuana prohibition, we’ve found the real issues: happy people of color, sexually liberated women, and that darned jazz music again. It seems to boil down to racism and respectability politics.

While Harry Anslinger may seem like a distasteful relic of the past, like ambrosia salad or velour tracksuits, the truth is he never really died. His spirit lives on in men like Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, who is quoted as saying, “I thought those guys [the Ku Klux Klan] were OK until I learned they smoked pot.” An alleged joke, but I digress.

This long-standing tie between weed prohibition and racism is alive and well. What’s more is that in modern times, these discrepancies in arrest rates haven’t changed. Weed legalization is not just a matter of making plant medicine more accessible or being able to smoke a joint on your front porch. It’s a matter
of life and death for Black people who are being thrown in prison and left there for the crime of...what? Doing the same things that their white peers are doing.

It’s definitely something to think about. If you’d like to learn more about the ongoing issue of racism in the cannabis industry, this TED Talk is a great place to start. One of our co-founders Blair Lauren Brown did a phenomenal job taking a deep dive into the history of cannabis and prohibition in this country. And
if you’d like to do more to support the issue, we’ve got you covered! Consider exploring resources through Cannaclusive, one of our favorite organizations fighting for diversity, inclusivity and legalization in the cannabis space.

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