There is no corner of American history untouched by racial injustice. In this latest fight for civil rights and social equality, many White Americans have been forced to consider how they have directly and indirectly benefited from the continued subjugation of the Black population. From African slavery at the start of the U.S. to unequal policing and prosecution leading to enslavement through mass incarceration among Black communities in the modern age, America has thrived thanks in no small part to the suffering of Black people.
Now is the time to recognize every injustice experienced by our Black friends, neighbors and countrymen. That starts in our individual spheres and works outwards — so today, in the spirit of increasing knowledge and effecting change, here is a (brief and incomplete) history of marijuana through a racial lens.
Hemp Farming and Slavery
American history books explain in effusive language how crops like tobacco, sugar and cotton saved the early American colonies thanks to their easy cultivation and high value on the world market — but rarely do students in American schools learn how hemp was the crop that saved early settlements in Virginia, in Massachusetts Bay and throughout the South.
Hemp was among the first plants domesticated and cultivated by humans, tens of thousands of years ago; by the 17th century and the discovery of the New World, hemp accounted for over 80 percent of clothing and was essential within the massive transportation industry, which relied on hemp canvas for sails. Hemp grows quickly and is naturally resistant to mold and mildew, pests, UV radiation and other potential harms, making it a near-perfect crop for struggling colonists. Thanks to hemp, the American colonies were able to survive and thrive.
Yet, white, European colonists were not the ones in the hemp fields or hemp factories. The large, strong and sticky hemp plants made for difficult, dirty work, and the sheer amount of crop requiring harvesting and processing required a large labor force. American farmers kept their costs low and their hands clean by relying on African slaves.
Race and Psychoactive Marijuana
Consequently, many Africans on American plantations were more than familiar with cannabis crops. Many African cultures at the time, especially the Bantu people of Angola, smoked psychoactive marijuana from water pipes, and some continued to cultivate their own private cannabis crops for smoking even during their subjugation, to make the hot, hard work and lifestyle more tolerable. Some White slaveowners encouraged this practice, which kept their labor force more manageable, but few Whites engaged in the practice themselves.
That’s not to say that White Europeans eschewed psychoactive marijuana altogether. Instead of smoking the herb, Whites purchased and used cannabis tinctures, which were alcohol-based cannabinoid concentrates, oftentimes with other plant and animal components mixed in. Throughout the 19th century, cannabis cures were commonly available and marketed as a solution to a wide variety of ills, from general pain to “melancholia.” For the most part, using cannabis in this way was seen as medicinal treatment, regardless of how enjoyable the treatment might have been.
Despite the long history of smoking weed among Black American communities, White Americans were not largely aware of the practice until around the turn of the 20th century. At this time, Mexican and other Latinx immigrants began flooding into the United States, seeking employment opportunities and safer, healthier lifestyles. With them, the immigrants brought vestiges of their Latin culture — to include smoking marijuana as recreation.
Fearful of this seeming invasion of a foreign people and culture, White Americans worked fast to try to control People of Color with legislation — particularly laws against the use of marijuana. States began criminalizing weed in various ways starting in the 1910s, and the Federal Government effectively made the drug illegal in 1937 with the Marihuana Tax Act. Dozens of other regulations followed, including the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, the beginning of Richard Nixon’s War on Drug).
As intended, legislation against marijuana allowed the government more minute control over minority populations and communities of Color, many of whom relied on cannabis not just for recreation but for livelihood. Denied access to more legitimate forms of employment, and desperate for income to support families and communities, POC engaged more actively in the illegal drug trade than Whites. Not only Latinx immigrants but also Black POC, many of whom with American lineages older than many Whites, were rounded up and placed in prison, where they could once again function as unpaid slave labor.
Legalization and Leaving POC Behind
The effort to reverse the criminalization of weed began in the 1970s, and today, many states permit the legal sale of cannabis products. Anyone can find a safe, nearby dispensary on a website like weedmaps.com, and many states have taken steps to release and expunge certain levels of marijuana-related convictions. Even so, Black and Brown Americans continue to suffer as a result of weed regulations.
Today, cannabis culture is covered by depictions of White hippies performing goofy antics, but that story ignores the long racial history of the drug. While most of us no longer see marijuana as a deadly, dangerous drug, it has hurt a vast swath of the American population, and it is time that all Americans recognize and admit the wrongs done in the name of weed.