July 1, 2020

Social Justice & the War on Drugs | Part 2: The Role of Cannabis Prohibition in Systemic Racism and Social Injustice

July 1, 2020

We cannot broach the topic of the Drug War without discussing the growing cannabis industry and the activism it took to start moving the legacy market to a legalized, adult-use market complete with retail shops that look as nice as an Apple store.  The cannabis industry has been born out of a movement to end cannabis prohibition, and the history of it is racist at its core and is a huge piece that has fueled the broken system we are now navigating.

As we begin to see the federal legalization of cannabis in America on the horizon, particularly now that cannabis businesses have been deemed essential in the midst of closures due to the Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic, the discussion of ending the overall Drug War is imminent.  The social injustices tied to the War on Drugs are even more prevalent now, and perhaps under a lens more than ever with the recent civil unrest and demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd and other Black citizens at the hands of police

Devin Alexander is an equity program participant and prospective cannabis delivery business entrepreneur in Quincy, Massachusetts.  He said, “I think ending the War on Drugs would help significantly with reform, the War on Drugs is basically a war on Black and Brown communities going all the way back to Henry Anslinger, to Nixon, to Reagan.  That’s where we need to start really, is ending the War on Drugs.”

Sadly, many U.S. citizens are not aware of the true history of cannabis prohibition and the Drug War. Steven Phan is a 1st generation Chinese-Vietnamese American and the founder of Come Back Daily, a CBD store in NYC.  Phan discussed the need for a true deconstruction and reconstruction of the entire, broken system that we are currently living in, and said, “At this point, there is still a huge need for us to break down the fundamentals, the history, so then people can understand everything to follow.”

So, the fundamentals: What is the role of cannabis prohibition in the Drug War?

The War on Drugs and Cannabis Prohibition 

While the term “War on Drugs” officially was coined in June of 1971 during a speech by President Nixon, one could safely argue that it began with the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which began the formal process of scheduling drugs. This “war” continued in full-force throughout the 1980s and early ’90s, with millions of dollars being devoted to curbing non-violent drug crimes.  

Now, while it may seem like weed has been illegal for ages, if you look back at the history of marijuana, it’s only been banned in the U.S. for a few decades — less than 100 years. And that law, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, was technically not a federal ban at all, but a law that required taxes and licenses. Unfortunately, in order to obtain a tax stamp, individuals needed to present their goods, which was basically a confession to a crime.

With propaganda films like Reefer Madness, which came out in 1936, millionaires like Andrew Mellon and Randolph Hearst took action to protect their financial interests by harming the hemp industry, and growing distrust of the drug overall.  But, during World War II, many farmers were actively encouraged to grow hemp via another propaganda film, Hemp for Victory (1942), as a part of the war effort, and it was done completely legally, without changing the law at all.

Then, the Marihuana Tax Act was ruled unconstitutional by the courts in 1969 in Leary v. United States because the law forced one to incriminate oneself to comply with it.  So when did marijuana become illegal in the U.S.? Surprisingly, it’s only been a Schedule I drug since 1970. The Controlled Substances Act (CSA) of 1970 created the modern federal U.S. drug policy by using formal scheduling to control drugs, and cannabis was ranked as more dangerous than cocaine or fentanyl.

The Racist History of Cannabis Prohibition

The law enforcement view of cannabis was absolutely shaped by the fact that it was initially connected to brown people from Mexico in the 1930s and subsequently with Black and poor communities in this country. Police in Texas border towns demonized the cannabis plant in racial terms as the drug of ‘immoral’ populations who were promptly labeled ‘fiends’, feeding into the beginnings of the overall Drug War

The United States’ decades-long prohibition of marijuana was based on racism when, in 1930, Harry Anslinger was appointed Narcotics by then President Herbert Hoover to lead the newly formed Federal Bureau of Narcotics, which later became the DEA.  At that time, Anslinger was quoted as saying: “[M]ost [marijuana consumers in the US] are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. … [M]arijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes. … Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”

Fast forward through a few decades of these communities continually being disproportionately and adversely affected by cannabis prohibition, and then there is the response regarding the War on Drugs and cannabis prohibition from John Ehrlichman, President Nixon’s top advisor, in a 1994 interview:

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Sadly, not much has changed in the last several decades in terms of the level of racism intertwined in cannabis prohibition, even with 47 out of 50 states having introduced laws that legalize weed in some form.  Marcus Harcus is an activist in Minneapolis, MN, who has been on the ground doing social justice and drug law reform work for years, and is especially busy with the current demonstrations and activation that is happening now. Harcus, now a political candidate for Minnesota State Representative in House District 59A in North Minneapolis, said:

“We need to make sure that a key feature of legalization is that there is some type of reparation, that we try to repair the damage that has been done to the communities that have suffered the brunt of it, mainly the Black community. If you look at the city of Minneapolis, there was a period of time between 2004-2012 where almost 12 Black people were arrested for cannabis for every 1 white person, and this is a predominately white city. When we see legalization and there’s hardly any Black people who have a legal business, that’s a big problem.  We must advocate for a diverse industry.”

law enforcement

Even now, in 2020, it is Black and Brown people who are busted the most and punished most severely. As reported by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), of the 8.2 million marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010, the arrest data revealed one consistent trend: significant racial bias. Despite roughly equal usage rates, Blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana. 

Lori Lord, is a marketing consultant in the Houston, TX, area and the co-founder of Fully Integrated, an education platform dedicated to filling the gap and ensuring People of Color (POC) are equipped with the knowledge needed to be successful in the cannabis industry.  She said:

“There is no way you can be in the cannabis industry and not focus on the social equity piece.  It is essential that POC are included in the industry.  You cannot NOT include this subset of people who have been so negatively affected by the War on Drugs. Cannabis businesses must show up and be ready to fight for the people who came before them.  Cannabis has been deemed an essential business in the middle of a global pandemic and cannabis businesses are spiking in revenue, yet we still have people in jail for selling these same products. It’s so contradictory.”

Cannabis Legalization and Calls for Social Justice for POC

The racist history of cannabis prohibition in America and the social and criminal injustices that are embedded in the very roots of the cannabis industry have not been adequately recognized as cannabis has become legalized.  There is still not a single state with legalized cannabis that has written reparations into its policy for those communities who have been hardest hit.  Until this policy comes about, it is up to the cannabis industry to honor the legacy market and all of those who have been soldiers in the Drug War to get to where we are now.

Roz McCarthy is the founder of Minorities 4 Medical Marijuana (M4MM).  She explained: 

“The cannabis industry should be out there pushing the narrative about social injustices when it comes to Black people, and then you can extend it out to POC, but specifically Black people.  I would love to see the cannabis community not only stand up and acknowledge the fact that Black Lives Matter, but that there is a dichotomy and a difference in regard to how people are treated based upon their color, based upon their economic status, and that disproportionate arrests for cannabis are very prevalent in the Black community.”

Byrdie McCoy is a CBD advocate and holistic fitness coach. She agrees with McCarthy’s point. 

“I think right now what’s so disappointing but not shocking is how many cannabis brands who have always “claimed” to be part of the fight against injustices against POC remain silent in this Black Lives Matter fight. The cannabis industry, like the fashion and music industry, thrives off of Black culture, the Black dollar, and the Black lives that have had to pay the price so that their businesses can operate the way they do. Making trillions for running a business that has cost Blacks their freedoms and lives.”

Jesce Horton is the cofounder of Nuleaf Project and LOWD cannabis company. Horton has been advocating for years for sound drug laws and social justice, while also working in the cannabis industry.  He feels the cannabis industry is in a position of potentially propelling the country forward from an economic and social standpoint.  

Data supports his point: Evaluating combined sales shows that the U.S. cannabis industry total economic impact was up as much as 30% from 2018 to 2019, and that total dispensary sales increased to $44.7 billion in 2019, and are projected $42.5 to $52 billion for 2020.  These kinds of numbers give the industry credit for potential leadership, but also huge social responsibility.  

“People in the industry, or at least those who adhere to the principles cannabis has taught us, know that this plant is something that really brings people together.  We have to understand that it’s a massive responsibility to be in this industry because of its history and because of what cannabis can do to improve the humanity of everyone who is involved.”

– Jesce Horton

Many cannabis advocates like Horton agree that social equity programs are key.  Caroline Pineau is the owner of Stem Haverhill, an economic empowerment retail store in Massachusetts.  She said: 

“I think Massachusetts has the best social equity program in the nation, thanks largely to the efforts of Commissioner Shaleen Title.  The cannabis industry should be supporting cannabis entrepreneurs that represent communities that have been disproportionately affected, and should be employing as many people from those communities as possible.”

Marcus Harcus has been pushing for cannabis legalization in Minnesota for years.  He feels that, “if someone is fortunate enough to operate a legal cannabis business, and especially if they are doing well, they have a responsibility to organize resources from their own business and to mobilize other stakeholders to intentionally try and create some opportunities that will right the wrongs of the Drug War. Cannabis never should have been illegal to begin with.”

What Role Does the Cannabis Industry Have in Social Reform?

Moving forward, it is essential that cannabis businesses advocate for sound policy that allocates all cannabis tax revenue to funds that for equity programs backed by science and reason. Those programs should then be implemented in the communities most disproportionately affected by the War on Drugs. We should insist that these policies be written into future state and federal regulatory frameworks before a bill passes through congress, or a ballot measure is voted on by the people.  Cannabis tax revenue is the greatest financial opportunity to repair the harms of the Drug War.

Until this policy is instituted into our current and future laws it is truly up to the legalized cannabis industry, collectively, to operate in a socially responsible manner and push for this reform.  There are many ways the cannabis industry can step up and be involved, regardless of the size and type of business.  

Erica Fuller is a community organizer and steadfast supporter and advocate for women in the cannabis industry.  She made the point that, regardless of the size or level of income a cannabis business is making, that they can create Standard Operating Procedures that include training and education about these social justice issues for their employees and also find ways to be civically engaged.  “Companies need to diversify and educate staff on why you need to be equitable, the history of the Drug War, and how that all relates to racism in the U.S. You need to get up for those who can’t and vote because we need new, diverse leadership that includes people who have come from oppressed communities.”

“Sign petitions, call about the budgets being given to the police departments and ask that they be disbursed to better serve the community. Don’t keep saying you’re sorry because that will never protect us. We need your actions and we need you to understand your privilege and that the cannabis industry would be nothing without Black people.”

-Byrdie Mccoy

Roz McCarthy made the point that regardless as to whether your company is ancillary or not, if you work in the cannabis industry you must acknowledge the legacy market and the wrongs of the criminal justice system when it comes to cannabis prohibition. “I was looking around at social media from cannabis companies and I felt like it was crickets, and I really feel like this should be a big priority in our industry,” so she started a petition through M4MM that states:

The  Cannabis industry is the US #1 growing job sector. The industry’s foundation can be linked back to social injustice and social inequity towards people of color. Stand now in solidarity with Black men and women who are more likely to be racially profiled….who are more likely to be incarcerated for cannabis….who are more likely to get passed over for a job in this industry…who are more likely to be killed by those who are supposed to protect us. This affects us all. Together we can be the change that makes a difference… 

Cannabis industry where are you? #justiceforGeorgeFloyd #blm #blacklivesmatter #socialequity without #social justice is nonexistent

Posted by Minorities 4 Medical Marijuana on Sunday, May 31, 2020

Devin Alexander outlined some other ways that cannabis businesses can make a difference.  He suggested holding more expungement clinics and that bigger companies create incubator and accelerator programs for cannabis entrepreneurs (such as the newly released program from Al Harrington).  In addition to being civically engaged and contacting your legislators, he also suggested that cannabis companies give hiring preference to POC and people who have come from disadvantaged areas and to create management programs for entry level employees to become managers.  Alexander also agrees that the social equity piece is huge. “A lot of people don’t even know what a social equity program is. There needs to be more awareness.  Cannabis, social justice reform, racism and the War on Drugs really are all intertwined with one another.”

“I think the cannabis industry and our voice is one that has more weight than maybe we think,”  Horton said. He made the point that, while donations to organizations are a good thing to do, the cannabis industry really needs to come together to find meaningful ways to keep it at the forefront of people’s minds and make lasting change.  He also explained that including these meaningful ways in your company is actually better from a business standpoint as well, and said: 

“Without a doubt if you have a cannabis company and you’re making money from the industry, you have to realize it’s not just about doing the right thing. You will not make as much money as you could if you don’t include these communities, if these communities don’t feel like you care about these issues, issues that affect ALL cannabis users then essentially you are really cutting off a big opportunity for your business AND the opportunity to improve your community.”

The time for change is now.


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