The History of Cannabis and Racism

A message from our Founder, Matt Krishnamachari

Cannabis and Racism History

Racism sucks.

It is the judgment of people based on something we don’t control and something that has absolutely no relation to who we are, the color of our skin.

My childhood (and later, my prison time for cannabis) were both spent in the South. From the stark difference in how kids were treated at school to the difference in opportunities for young adults and all the way to the criminal justice system, racism existed at every corner. It never did and has never made sense to me.

In recent years, and especially in the aftermath of police shootings of black men in 2020, the plight of African Americans in the United States has been highlighted for the systematic oppression that has existed for so many years. This oppression is being exposed by mobile phone cameras, smartwatches, and anything else that can take a picture of police brutality and citizen harassment. These videos and images have spawned protests for equality in all major US cities during the previous years. The Black Lives Matter movement saw millions of people of all races demanding that African Americans be treated equally in all aspects of society. While in times it seems like this, it is tempting to think that equality has momentum, there is far too much inequality for us to relax our attention.

We will not change the world into one where we all are treated equally by the words we say in public or the way we present our views to the world. It will take each of us to make sure that equality exists in our hearts, minds, spirit and therefore in the world we create around us in order for meaningful change to happen.

During Black History Month (and frankly, every month) it is very important that we look at Cannabis’s place in the history of racism as well as what still must be done to combat the inequality that still exists as a result.
The plant I love and call cannabis has been called many things: pot, weed, grass, ganja, dope, reefer, mary jane, chronic, and most recently fire or gas. However, over the history of cannabis in the United States, it has mostly been called Marijuana, and for a very specific reason.

Prior to the Great Depression, cannabis wasn’t very well known in the United States, the plant was used solely for hemp production. Since the colonial era, farmers had grown cannabis for hemp. In fact, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both had hemp farms. (1)

Cannabis was popular in Latin America, including Mexico, since ancient times. In the United States Cannabis was only used as a medicine and could be found in most American homes in the form of the countless tinctures and pill medications prescribed by doctors for a variety of ailments. (2)

In the early 1900s, tens of thousands of people fleeing the Mexican Civil War immigrated to the Southwest portions of the United States, a large portion of them settling in Texas and Louisiana. This influx of immigration escalated anti-Mexican immigrant sentiment and a campaign of “reefer madness” among white Americans. This campaign was largely initiated by the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics at the time, Harry Anslinger. (3)

Anslinger’s propaganda campaign included racist narratives, like those who smoke marijuana, are of an inferior race, and are much more likely to engage in sexual promiscuity and resort to violence and stealing, experts said. As cannabis use amongst African Americans increased as described below, this rhetoric ratcheted up already deep racism against Black Americans. New Orleans’ news articles consistently associated the “drug” with “African-Americans, violence, jazz music and prostitution. (3)

After World War 1, Caribbean immigrants introduced cannabis to the increasingly enfranchised Black communities of southern port cities, such as New Orleans. Cannabis’s tendency to help with creativity in music and art, relax the mind, and enhance social experiences made it very popular amongst these communities. During the period of American alcohol prohibition, it was also much easier, and cheaper, to get cannabis than alcohol. This made cannabis even more popular. (4)

White America was already concerned about African American’s expanding economic, social, and voting power threatening the region’s long-standing social order. This was not something White Americans were ready to accept. Cannabis was utilized by Anslinger to create a propaganda campaign that oppressed entire races, ruined countless families and lives, and withheld medical opportunities for countless millions. Sadly, this information was accepted as truth by many people, for many years. (4)

Anslinger’s propaganda campaign included racist narratives, like those who smoke marijuana are of an inferior race” and are much more likely to engage in sexual promiscuity and resort to violence and stealing, experts said.,” In large parts of the country, as cannabis use amongst African Americans increased, this rhetoric piggybacked on racism against Black Americans. New Orleans’ news articles consistently associated the “drug” with “African-Americans, violence, jazz music and prostitution.” (5)

Instead of referring to the plant as cannabis, as it had been referred to in the United States and was commonly seen as an ingredient in most medicine cabinets, prohibitions activists referred to it as Marijuana or Marihuana in order to make the plant sound more “Mexican”, successfully connecting the use of marijuana by brown and black people to dangerous and fabricated side effects of the drug. (5)

This propaganda campaign, combined with its use by Mexican immigrants quickly convinced Americans that cannabis was a dangerous drug used by only the degenerates of society. States began to make possession of even a small amount of cannabis illegal, banning cannabis based on racism. By 1937, all states had pass laws making cannabis illegal when the federal government effectively completely banned all cultivation, sale, and possession of cannabis. The Marihuana Tax Stamp Act of 1937 criminalized cannabis in any form. (5)

The 1937 Marihuana Tax Stamp Act required anyone who hoped to sell cannabis to pay a tax and get a license. In reality, the Tax Stamp Act was designed so it was practically impossible to do so. It created a highly punitive situation whereas having cannabis without a license was treated as tax evasion and could draw a substantial prison sentence. In truth, it was designed to oppress African and Mexican American people. During the year following the Marihauna Tax Stamp Act, African Americans were arrested for cannabis 3x as much and Mexican Americans being arrested at a 9X higher rate than white counterparts. (6)

During the 1960s, young adults and teenagers of all races began using Cannabis as part of the “hippie revolution”. They looked at cannabis as something that created peace among people and shared joints of cannabis on the streets of San Francisco and the West Coast, yet still in the closets of their home in the Southern part of the United States. In 1969, cannabis was ALMOST made legal when the Supreme Court tossed out the Marihuana act, saying it violated the constitution by forcing people to incriminate themselves when asking for a tax stamp. (7)

Quickly, in 1970, the beginning of President Nixon’s War on Drugs was kicked off by the passing of the Controlled Substances act. The Controlled Substances Act organized various legally controlled substances into “schedules” based on their opinions on how dangerous, addictive, and medically useless they considered them to be. While there have, and continue to be, many efforts to deschedule cannabis, it has always been a schedule 1 drug, the most highly restricted category. Heroin and cocaine are also classified as Schedule 1 controlled substances. (7)

In November of 1996, California passed the world’s first Medical Marijuana Program, establishing the use of cannabis as effective for conditions such as nausea, pain, anxiety, and glaucoma. This was the beginning of public acceptance of the cannabis plant in the United States. This was followed by more states creating medical marijuana programs and in 2012, both the states of Colorado and Washington legalized cannabis for recreational use. As more US states passed medical and recreational cannabis laws allowing the consumption of cannabis, even entire countries, like Uruguay and Canada fully legalized cannabis for recreational use. (8)

Cannabis Today

Currently, there are only six states in the US that have not legalized or decriminalized cannabis for either recreational or medical use. Still, the problem of racial disparity with Cannabis greatly exists. For example, in New York City, African Americans are now 8x more likely and Mexican Americans are 5x more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts for cannabis. These numbers are despite extensive research showing that cannabis consumption among races is very equal. (8)

As cannabis gains increasing acceptance in our society, it is necessary for our industry to recognize the struggles that were gone through in order for us to enjoy the plant that helps our lives so much. It is paramount that we ensure that African Americans and Mexican Americans have opportunities in the legal cannabis market, not only opportunities to participate but the ability to help shape the industry.

As a private family-owned legal cannabis dispensary in San Jose, we are one of the oldest and most recognized dispensaries in the nation and world. As the industry matures, we see large hedge funds comprised mostly of people with no knowledge or feelings about the plant and the people it serves (in many cases they have no feelings towards much besides money) swooping into the industry to profit off of a plant that many others struggled and sacrificed incredibly to get acceptance for. This will only serve to increase the inequalities placed upon African and Mexican Americans as laws excluding people with any criminal background as well as very high licensing and operational costs are keeping many people unjustly arrested for cannabis or simply born into low-income situations as a result of the oppression of their communities in the name of cannabis for many years from participating.

Purple Lotus has remained a private family-owned company largely because we want to stand up tall to effect social change and we won’t take a chance on investors stealing the soul of our mission. Our mission from the first day we opened our doors with 1 lb of cannabis, my wife and I’s goal was always been to unite ALL people through cannabis excellence. We are honored and excited to continue making progress. “None of us are free until all of us are free” is true in so many, many ways.

In a sign of progress, most cities and states that regulate cannabis have created Cannabis Social Equity programs that encourage and require participation from historically disadvantaged groups, including largely African Americans. While this is a large step in acknowledging what must be done, it is not enough. It will require business services to look at everyone equally when they make decisions, consumers to shop, not with the old conditioned thoughts in their mind, but with a mindful approach and solid reverence for equality.

Purple Lotus is strongly committed to combatting inequality in the Cannabis industry through our hiring practices, employee educational opportunities, community involvement, investments into groups representing African Americans and other marginalized groups.

Being from the South, my family was marginalized due to race, sexuality, and religion. At a young age, I spent 5 years in prison for cannabis arrests (including a 15-month stint in solitary confinement). For weed!!!! From my cell, I never in a million years would I think that I would have the opportunity to provide the blessing of cannabis to so many people. Over the last 10 years the purple lotus has provided cannabis I wake up every morning excited and extremely grateful at the opportunity to change lives through cannabis. My heart is filled with joy, gratitude, and pride for what the Purple Lotus stands for and provides. My hope is that all people have the opportunity to experience these feelings, regardless of race, sex, religion, or anything else. Like all opportunities, some people will take advantage of them and some will be happy to not pursue them. That is each individual’s decision……..but we all deserve the same, fair chance.

Let’s take good care of each other, we deserve it.
Purple Lotus

Purple Lotus will donate a portion of our proceeds from the entire month of February to The Last Prisoner Project, an organization devoted to ensuring all people incarcerated for Cannabis are freed. As of this writing, they have just secured the release of Michael Thompson, a man who served 25 years in prison for 3 lbs of marijuana. This was a major success, the movement to free Micheal was assisted by recommendations by Kim Kardashian who “didn’t think weed should be a reason people are in jail”, several district attorneys, and a worldwide #freemichaelthompson hashtag campaign on social media. The past year has found Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat with many posts containing #FreemichaelThompson.
You can support their work at Michael Thompson was a huge step, but there are many, many, many more. We can’t stop until they are all home.







Latest posts