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The History of Anti-Black Racism and Cannabis

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Cannabis policies are rooted in racism. From harmful stereotyping to mass incarceration, anti-cannabis policy routinely targets Black POC. Beginning almost one hundred years ago, the term “marijuana” was popularized to associate cannabis with Mexican immigrants. And for a xenophobic America, it was enough to take action against the plant and begin a lengthy war against cannabis.

As Black History Month comes to a close, it’s time we reflect on the history of anti-Black racism in cannabis policies, and now in the cannabis industry. Though the history of segregation seems to be behind us, systemic racism is very much alive. For one, cannabis-related arrests in the U.S. accounted for more than half of drug arrests in 2010. And of those arrests, Black cannabis users were nearly four times more likely to be arrested than white ones. Now that cannabis is entering the legal market, white men are swiftly taking over the industry. There is clearly a double standard.

Sha’Carri Richardson is a great example of Black women taking the brunt of anti-cannabis racism. As a Black woman using cannabis for emotional healing, her ban from the Olympics highlighted an obscene double standard. Most would agree cannabis is far from a performance-enhancing drug, but a positive test result still got Richardson kicked out of the Tokyo Olympics. Meanwhile, Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva was given a pass for a more severe doping scandal.

The anti-Black racism in the world of cannabis is still here. While today it’s Sha’Carri Richardson, in the 1940s, it was jazz and swing singer Billie Holiday. A Black woman icon and civil rights activist, Holiday took the brunt of anti-cannabis and anti-Black sentiments. She was routinely targeted by racist lawmaker Harry Anslinger, the man responsible for anti-cannabis policies and propaganda. Though she died during her fight against racial injustice and drug abuse, her legacy serves as an example of the anti-Black rhetoric that continues today.

Check our video below on Billie Holiday and the history of anti-Black racism in cannabis policy!

How Billie Holiday Became a Symbol for the War on Drugs

VIDEO TRANSCRIPT: You’ve probably heard of Billie Holiday. She was an American jazz and swing singer that performed with popular musicians like Louis Armstrong. There have been multiple movies dedicated to her life and she still has over 3 million Spotify listeners each month. But what you may not know is before her death in 1959 she was a symbol for the war on drugs, and specifically, the war on cannabis.

Drug laws in the United States have been notoriously racist. Politicians spent decades trying to associate drug use with Blacks and Hispanics. After the prohibition era in the 30s, Prohibition Enforcers like this guy were out of a job. Harry Anslinger was in charge of keeping rum out of the country, but once the prohibition era ended, he shifted his focus to an easier target, cannabis. Anslinger then dedicated his career to punishing drug users, especially ones of colour. He popularized the Spanish word “marihuana” to associate cannabis with Mexican immigrants. And his strategy worked. For years, Americans associated cannabis with immigration, poverty and race, helping his mission to demonize the plant. He passed the Marihuana Tax Act to crack down on cannabis use, and he spread the idea marijuana was making Black folks forget their place in society. Needless to say, he was racist. 

So when Billie Holiday and other Black jazz artists were openly using drugs and smoking joints during performances, he wasn’t too happy about it. Immediately he began to associate jazz with Black musicians who smoked cannabis and called it “satanic music.” When referring to POC, he’s quoted as saying “Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes” Yikes. 

Billie Holiday was having none of it and fought back with her 1939 hit song, “Strange Fruit.” (strange fruit starts playing) Strange Fruit was dangerous. It was a protest song that spoke about the brutality and violence experienced by Black Americans. The song is based on a poem by Jewish writer Abel Meeropol and describes the horrific lynchings in the South. Strange Fruit was controversial. It made people question their role in society. The song was so feared because the government knew it had the potential to start a civil rights movement. And the fact that a Black woman could so openly sing about racism was evidence for Anslinger that cannabis made Black people defiant. He was pissed.

He quickly forbid Holiday from singing Strange Fruit, but knowing how powerful the song was, she continued. Amidst her activism and singing career, she was also a heroin addict and suffered from childhood trauma. Anslinger used this against her and had her arrested, followed and harassed by government officials. Though Billie Holiday persisted with performing, the constant harassment coupled with her addiction took a toll on her body. She sought medical help in a hospital, but Anslinger ordered doctors to refuse her treatment. She died just a few days later at 44 years old.

“Strange Fruit” was considered the song of the century decades after her death. And in the meantime, the demonization of cannabis continued and launched what we know today as the War on Drugs. In particular, cannabis was facing its own war. With lawmakers associating cannabis with the Black community and fueling policy with racism. Harry Anslinger is hugely responsible for anti-cannabis legislation and helped make cannabis a Schedule 1 drug alongside heroin. Marking it as a “high potential for abuse.” For context, schedule 2 drugs, which are considered less severe include opiates, PCP and cocaine.

The fight for cannabis is fought alongside the fight for civil rights. Anti-cannabis laws frequently target Black users over white ones, despite the drug being used at a consistent rate in both racial categories. In 2010, an ACLU report found that black people were four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis use than white people. Black mothers who use cannabis are heavily scrutinized, despite an entire culture of self-proclaimed “wine moms”. And even today with a thriving legal market, Black women make a small minority of the industry leaders.

Harry Anslinger and other government officials spent decades trying to associate cannabis with the Black community. But now that cannabis is entering legal territory, the biggest players are suddenly white. Billie Holiday was chastised for her cannabis use 90 years ago, yet we still have Black women like Sha’Carri Richardson being the target of anti-cannabis bias and racism. Cannabis bias is historically linked with racism, and even though it might less explicit, it’s still ingrained in our government and the cannabis industry itself.

Moving forward, we need better representation. Both in government and in the cannabis industry. It’s also important to spread awareness on the history to promote. Though change may be difficult it’s certainly not impossible. And Billie Holiday once said, “the difficult I’ll do now, the impossible will take a little while.”

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Gabrielle Samson

Gabrielle is a Ryerson student in the Creative Industries program with a passion for diverse media and women empowerment. As a young, Queer, Woman of Color, Gabrielle is passionate about contributing to the Young Alpha series from a lens of intersectionality. She is also a fitness instructor and personal trainer eager to advocate for physical and mental health for young women.

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