Cannabis & Black History Month: How can the industry do better?

As we celebrate Black History Month, we honor the role of Black Americans in molding our world, especially when it comes to the tumultuous tides of cannabis.

The truth is that Black history is threaded through the fabric of the cannabis industry. So it’s high time we take a look back at how Black people have helped shape our current landscape. 


The Melanated History of Cannabis

The cannabis plant was first harvested in central Asia (possibly as early as 500 BCE) before it eventually made its way down to Southeast Asia in India and the Arab countries. In fact, it is why many of the terms for cannabis have Sanskrit origin (e.g. ganja)

Watercolor painting of Bhang (cannabis) eaters before two huts, circa 1790. Source: San Diego Museum of Art, Edwin Binney 3rd Collection.


With the vast trading networks of the area, it wasn’t long before cannabis was introduced to the African diaspora by Arab merchants in the 13th century. Then, in the 1800s, the British began bringing indentured servants from India to the Caribbean to work on rubber and sugar plantations as laborers – and the servants brought cannabis with them. 

The result was an entanglement of the Indian and Jamaican cultures, folding cannabis culture into the communities of young, Black Jamaican field workers. In 1833 when the British outlawed slavery, the empire’s colonies in Jamaica and Barbados no longer held the Indian servants under their rule. Workers began moving and settling in Jamaica, further advancing the popularity of cannabis. 

Cannabis then entered the United States through Caribbean sailors and immigrants who arrived at the border. Black and brown communities in American began consuming cannabis recreationally. Even then, it was not new to Black Americans whose parents and grandparents were enslaved to work on hemp fields.

A former slave uses a hand brake for hemp in Lexington, Kentucky. Source: John Winston Coleman Jr. via the University of Kentucky.


Over 100 years after cannabis became popular in Jamaica, island music from Bob Marley and other musicians transformed cannabis into a cultural phenomenon.


Harry Anslinger and the Criminalization of Cannabis

Although it was Nixon’s presidential administration that fully launched the War on Drugs in 1971, experts consider Harry J. Anslinger its founding father.

Anslinger was the very first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) in 1930 and was also a big contributor to a racist narrative surrounding cannabis and drug use. At the time he was appointed, alcohol prohibition was coming to an end, and heroin and cocaine had already been outlawed. So, he turned his attention to cannabis.

Anslinger was recorded prior to his term saying that the idea that cannabis made people mad or violent was an “absurd fallacy” but to maintain that this new bureau had a purpose, Anslinger began to demonize cannabis. 

With fear-mongering and bigoted rhetoric, Anslinger attacked cannabis and jazz – an almost entirely Black American culture. Fast forward to the 1970s with the Nixon Administration and the harmful effects of the War on Drugs, and thus is born the crippling disproportionality of how cannabis impacts Black communities. (You can learn more about the lasting consequences of the War on Drugs in this blog post.)

And we still see it today. According to a study done by the ACLU, Black people are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for a cannabis-related crime than their white counterparts, though cannabis usage is fairly equal across racial lines.

Former President Nixon at a press conference on June 17, 1971, where he declared drug abuse “public enemy number one.” Source: Richard Nixon Foundation.


Final Thoughts and How We Can Do Better

It’s safe to say that the history of cannabis is messy. A simple glance tells us that Black Americans have been smoking cannabis well before it was a billion-dollar industry. The roots of Black heritage and culture grow through the very same soil as the cannabis plant itself. 

Knowing and acknowledging this is part of the reason why so many legal states, such as Illinois, Massachusetts, and Missouri, have social equity programs. For instance, the Massachusetts social equity program gives applicants assistance and training, expedited application reviews, waived fees, exclusive access to certain licenses, and more. 

However, as much as we love the cannabis industry and respect the progress that has been made, we also recognize there is a lot of work that still needs to be done. 

Black history doesn’t start and end with the month of February. The best way to honor our Black brothers and sisters is to celebrate that history year-round. We encourage you to learn and unlearn what you know about 400+ years of cannabis history beyond this 28-day time span. 

If you want to contribute and make a change, here are some ways you can help: