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How high are we? An in-depth look into the racist history of cannabis

When it comes to America’s racist history cannabis and the stigmas surrounding the drug should head your heated debate.

As of 2020, twelve states have legalized the use of marijuana, thirty have either decriminalized it or allowed its use for medical purposes. Only eight still hold it illegal.

The war on drugs appears to have come to an end, but in all reality, it has not. More and more information about the benefits of legalization floods the internet, yet little do we know about its precautions.

The question is not “if” marijuana should be legal, but “how” to legalize it.

Another racist tale

Marijuana use dates way back to 2,737 BC. The first recorded use of the plant was from emperor Sheng Neg of China, who prescribed marihuana tea to treat malaria, gout problems and, poor memory!

On American land, the first reported legalization of cannabis was in 1619. That same exact year a ship full of human cargo arrived at what would become Virginia. During that time King James had required all American colonists to grow Indian Hemp in to export to from (now) Jamestown to England.

History has taught us about slaves planting, cultivating and harvesting cotton, tobacco, sugar chain, etc. What they forgot to mention was that pot was also a major product of the Atlantic Slave Trade and part of the exploitation of slave labor.

Later, in the early 1900s Mexicans immigrated to the United States in the wake of the Mexican Revolution. With them, they brought their customs, cultures, and traditions; smoking “marijuana” as medicine and relaxant.

During that time, social anxieties began to spread. Media played with the public’s fear, using these Mexican customs to falsely spread claims about “disruptive Mexicans.”

And in the 1930s we started to hear claims about marijuana causing people of color to behave violently and solicit sex from white women.

Federal Bureau of Narcos Commissioner was quoted “reefers make darkies think they are as good as white men.” -Harry J. Anslinger, a very confused white racist

Finally, Nixon officially began the war on drugs (allegedly to criminalize black people and hippies).

Stats and stories of today

Today, as more information about the benefits [and economics] of cannabis spreads through the world, people and policies are begging to “shift away” from its long-standing stereotypes. The system, on the other hand, has not.

Research relying on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program shows that in 2010, 33% of marijuana users were white American and 28% were black. However, 200 arrests were white, and more than 700 were black.

By 2018, almost 26 states had decriminalized or legalized weed. Still, there were almost 700,00 marijuana arrests, all of which account for more than 48% of all drug arrests. This same year, the police made more marijuana arrests than for all violent crimes combined.

More than 6.1 million people have been reported for marijuana-related charges over the last 10 years; nine out of 10 arrests were only for possession.  Although black and white people consume marijuana at relatively the same rate, black people are four times more likely to get arrested.

More frustrating is the fact that today, black people make only 13% of America, but 40% of people imprisoned for drug crimes.

And the harm?

The harm goes far beyond a fine or prison. Drug charges haunt people as their background comes back more often than not. Some would never be able to get a job, or the life they wanted.

Marijuana money 101

Before the coronavirus, the legal weed industry was estimated to have an estimated worth of 19 billion dollars and 23 billion by the end of 2023.

And for years, government officials have backed their policies regarding marihuana claiming that legalization would benefit the minority groups for these same reasons; possibly increasing jobs and decreasing social injustices and racial inequality.

But who is actually benefiting from the legal weed industry?

Currently, the weed business if runs with licenses.  When California legalized recreational weed in 2016, policymakers imposed a one-acre limit to incentivize small businesses to rein over big companies. But then, in 2018 one of the big marijuana companies bought 200 permits, 46 acres.

Big businesses have been stacking close to 100 one-acre cultivation permits. Soon, the cannabis industry mirrored a High School hallway: the Big guys bullying little ones to get their lunch!

According to a study conducted by the Marijuana Business Daily, 4.3% of marijuana business owners are black, 5.7% are Hispanic and 81% are white men.

“I wanna take every Chardonay mom to replace Chardonay with Pot” – Adam Bierman, co-founder of Med Men.

And, as decriminalization and legalization happened around the country, states have built systems that support giant weed companies and hurt small-running weed business.

Florida, for example, gives very few operating licenses, making things complicated for small farms and very easy for big ones; one license was sold for over 55 million dollars.

As if things were not already complicated, Florida is one of the 11 states that require vertical integration to qualify for a license. This means that not only do they have to farm, grow and harvest the marijuana, but process it, distribute it and operate the stores that sell it.

Something that only companies with deep pockets are able to do.

The future of cannabis?

So, the answer to the above question is still: White men. White Men. White men.

At least that is what Wanda James, the first African American woman to own a weed dispensary in Colorado.

But, again, the question is not whether we should legalize weed or not. It does in fact bring social and medical benefits and it has proved to decrease (not stop) unfair arrest and drug charges.

However, it is yet another proof of how the system is making working under racial and economic inequalities hard by ignoring the true victims of the war on drugs.

Last year, New York delayed its democratization process because of these same reasons. This is a good step back to learn how the process works, who it works for and hopefully learn how to democratize the entire industry in order to enjoy its true benefits.