How Has Cannabis Been Impacted By Racism?

Bluebird Botanicals Racism and Cannabis

Cannabis. It’s the source of Bluebird’s CBD products and a powerful plant with countless uses and seemingly even more mystery enshrouding it. Unfortunately, as with many things not initially understood, certain interest groups - historically, those with a hand in policymaking - used the unknown elements of cannabis to stir fear and animosity in the general public. In the U.S. specifically, this sort of fearmongering was more often than not created through division and demonization of the “other,” and the line as to who fell into that marginalized category was drawn along race.

It’s interesting to look at the evolution of cannabis throughout the history of our country. In the days of the early U.S. colonies (which were rife with a whole host of problematic land seizures and decimation of native populations), it was actually required by law that farmers grow hemp crops! While it may be too simplistic to say that white people have been historically allowed and even encouraged to produce and utilize cannabis crops while people of color have been persecuted for the same behaviors, it’s probably fair to say that the minority oppressor groups in power dictated whether the plant would give you profit or a prison sentence. 

Let’s dive a little deeper.

Hemp’s Roots in Slavery

We mentioned that it was required for farmers in the U.S. colonies to grow hemp. What’s important to note is that the production of hemp crops, like most farmed crops at the time, was dependent on slave labor. Several Founding Fathers grew hemp on their plantations utilizing slave labor. The slaves worked backbreaking 10-hour days in damaging dusty conditions to meet demand. James F. Hopkins’ 2015 book A History of the Hemp Industry in Kentucky even asserts that the hemp crop was actually the reason slavery was able to flourish in that state. 

Not only was it slave labor that allowed for the growth of these hemp crops, but slave owners may have also used marijuana as a way to further regulate behavior  - encouraging them to plant their own crops that would then require tending in the slaves’ otherwise free personal time. 

Essentially - slave owners both profited off the slave labor used in growing hemp crops while also using the cannabis crops themselves to further control or pacify slaves.  

Hold Up, Hemp!

While hemp flourished throughout much of U.S. history, “yellow journalism” driven by William Randolph Hearst in the early 1900s helped kick off the criminalization of cannabis in the U.S. Mexican and Indian immigrants were demonized in propaganda that called their customs and cultures “Satanic,” citing marijuana use as the motivation or driver of the behaviors being called out. This basically created a rift between the popular hemp crop and the “marihuana” used by immigrants as well as a shift in overall perception of the cannabis crop. 

After being an essential crop used for rope, textiles and even a medicinal herb in the late 1800s, cannabis suddenly became associated with “locoweed,” “reefer madness,” and violent behaviors. Henry Anslinger in particular led the charge on racist propaganda - the narratives featured in his campaigns purported that “those who smoke marijuana are of an ‘inferior race’ and are more likely to engage in sexual promiscuity and violence,” experts said. But it wasn’t just propaganda against Mexican and Indian immigrants that were targets of the reefer madness stereotyping - the anti-marijuana campaigns also targeted black communities and their Jazz music specifically. Anslinger went as far as to say cannabis made black people forget their place in society. Big yikes. 

Cannabis, Racism, and Policy

Unfortunately, Anslinger’s propaganda was popularly accepted in many places and ended up having major influence on actual policy. The Marihuana Tax Act was passed in 1937, establishing extremely severe penalties that encouraged most to stay away from cannabis. Subsequent legislation continued to enhance penalties related to marijuana possession and use and, in practice, the enforcement of these policies disproportionately impacted people of color. 

The association of criminality and violence with marijuana, and of marijuana with people of color, created an environment in which people of color were automatically assumed to be criminals. The year immediately following the passage of the Tax Act, “black people were about three times more likely to be arrested for violating narcotic drug laws than whites. And Mexicans were nearly nine times more likely to be arrested for the same charge.” While additional context would be needed to vet how these arrests stacked up against the actual use demographics at the time, more recent research from the ACLU (2010) shows a continuation of this trend, noting that, “despite consuming cannabis at similar rates, blacks were more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than whites,” at various rates across the U.S.

Bluebird Botanicals Worst Arrest Disparities


Which goes to show - racism and policy have continued to play together, especially with regards to drug crimes. 

Here’s a brief recap on the highlights in cannabis policy since the Tax Act:

  • 1951 - The Boggs Act is passed, creating mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses.
  • 1956 - Congress passes the Narcotics Control Act, which increased these mandatory minimum sentences to five years for a first offense and ten years for each subsequent drug offense.
  • 1970 - The Controlled Substances Act is passed, differentiating penalties for drugs based on a scheduling assessment that evaluates medical use, potential for abuse, and safety or dependence liability for a given substance. 
  • 1972 - Shafer Commission advises decriminalization of marijuana following a rise in prevalence of use and absence of associated violent behaviors. While President Nixon rejects the recommendation, 11 states move forward with decriminalization. 
  • 1973 - The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is created from a merger of two existing enforcement entities, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD) and the Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement (ODALE). 
  • 1984The Sentencing Reform Act and the Comprehensive Crime Control Act are passed during the Reagan Administration. The Sentencing Reform Act intensified prison sentences for drug crimes and eliminated the parole system, while the Comprehensive Control Act authorized courts to consider dangerousness when setting bail conditions, and allowed courts to establish pretrial detention if necessary.
  • 1986 - Anti-Drug Abuse Act is added, establishing a “three strikes, you’re out,” policy that requires lifetime sentences for repeat (even nonviolent) drug offenders. 

The extreme harshness of the three-strike penalty meant that thousands of Americans ended up in prison with life sentences based on previous offenses for minor crimes such as stealing small change from a parked car, or nonviolent drug possession. 

There’s plentiful research on how these policies have disproportionately impacted people of color. A report as early as 1996 and a more recent 2019 article note the disparities in how these policies have impacted communities of color. This is in part because people of color are more likely to have a record in the first place because of unequal contact with police and the justice system. 

For the numbers people: in 2016, 78.5 percent of Americans serving life sentences in federal prison were people of color. For additional context, one in 12 (over 17,000) total incarcerated individuals are currently serving these life sentences for nonviolent crimes. 

Impact on Cannabis Research

Racism has not only impacted cannabis policy, but these policies have by extension also limited cannabis research. Part of this was because some of the key legislation like the Marijuana Tax Act and the Controlled Substances Act did not take into account fact-based inquiry, policy implications, or as one report notes, “morality.” In fact, these policies were driven by public campaigns that downright flouted the facts. 

William Randolph Hearst’s “yellow journalism,” is more than just a catchy term: it meant that Hearst controlled what was in essence an unprecedented journalism empire, controlling the flow of information to a majority of American households. According to The Nation, the Hearst media giant included 26 daily newspapers across 18 cities with “almost one in four US families read[ing] a Hearst paper every day,” before expanding to include Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Town & Country and Harper's Bazaar as well as emerging radio stations and eventually then newsreels.

And this source of truth was far from honest and deeply racist. Here are just a couple things that came from Hearst or his papers:

  • “Marijuana was known in India as the ‘murder drug,’ it was common for a man to ‘catch up a knife and run through the streets, hacking and killing every one he [encountered].’”
  • “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others.“…the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races.”

And, you guessed it, these sensational racist sentiments are so interwoven with antiquated policies that they’ve been limiting cannabis research for decades. 

Aside from the evident outright federal prohibitions that have existed, state universities and other entities that might otherwise provide funding support for cannabis research have been limited in doing so as it could risk their own access to federal funding. 

These limitations are inextricably linked with the racist propaganda that made marijuana illegal in the first place and have resulted in our industry currently growing and evolving quicker than the research can pace. 

The Current Cannabis Climate

Both access to financial resources and enforcement of drug policy have demonstrated inequities that position people of color at a major disadvantage today, even as marijuana policies have reformed. As reported by the Drug Policy Alliance, we know that people of color “are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, and convicted for drug-related charges than white people.” 

According to the NAACP, black people “make up 12.5% of illicit drug users. Yet, they make up 29% of arrests for drug offenses…[and] 33% of those incarcerated in state facilities.”

At the same time, it’s no secret that the majority of cannabis business owners (a whopping 81 percent) are white and have, generally, not been disenfranchised in the same ways by the War On Drugs. After all, starting a business with a criminal record is a difficult task, and cannabis legislation has a long way to go in terms of reparations and expungements. It’s a complex system of barriers rooted in economic and racist oppression, and we have a lot of work to do to dismantle it. 

Still More To Be Done

So, how do we continue to address this larger systemic problem? It starts with a focus on equity and transitional justice

In contrast with the concept of equality, equity seeks to improve access for all by taking into account specific barriers that exist for certain populations. In this case, the primarily black and latino groups who have disproportionately suffered the burden related to drug policy and incarceration.

Some states have begun to adopt social equity programs designed to promote a more inclusive industry, and to drive profits directly to the communities most harmed by the War on Drugs and other cannabis policies. And this is an extremely important consideration for such a profitable industry. If the 2018 report by Arcview Market Research and BDS Analytics is correct that the legal marijuana industry is projected to generate over $23 billion by 2022, it is vital that equity programs be implemented to ensure these dollars act as reparations to the communities most impacted by harsh drug policies.

How Can You Help?

Here are just a few organizations working on drug policy and incarceration reform. If you’ve got volunteer hours or income to spare, we suggest you consider supporting them. You can also read Bluebird’s pledge on how we’re moving forward with our anti-racist work, and continue the conversation within your own networks.

  1. The Last Prisoner Project

A Colorado-based nonprofit dedicated to helping those who have been incarcerated on cannabis drug charges. They work to release prisoners, expunge their records, and reestablish themselves after incarceration.

  1. Drug Policy Alliance

The Drug Policy Alliance aims to advance those policies and attitudes that best reduce the harms of both drug use and drug prohibition, and to promote the sovereignty of individuals over their minds and bodies.

  1. In Our Names Network

A national network of organizations, campaigns and individuals working to end police violence against Black women, girls, trans and gender-nonconforming people.

  1. Cannaclusive

Cannaclusive was created to facilitate fair representation of minority cannabis consumers. They offer diverse cannabis stock photography and host a database of minority-owned cannabis businesses, among other things.

  1. Cage-Free Cannabis

Cage-Free Cannabis holds a National Expungement Week and provides other consulting and services aimed at helping the cannabis industry and its consumers repair harms of the War on Drugs. 

Know of other organizations that are doing the good work? Send us an email at with a short description to have them added to this blog!