"They want our Rhythm but not our blues"

It feels like we’re living through a pivotal moment. A huge shift in consciousness, as we collectively come to terms with the past and present of race and racism in the UK, the US and beyond.  Thanks to the BLM movement, we’re having conversations about numerous related subjects, from what it means to fear the people paid to protect us to asking ourselves who and why we commemorate in our public spaces. 

It’s a sad reality that, as the Cannabis industry goes increasingly mainstream (from CBD all the way through to legalised marijuana in an increasing number of countries), there are still thousands of (black) prisoners serving their sentences while (usually white) entrepreneurs build businesses doing exactly the same thing. We can’t change that, but we hope that by recognising and talking about the unfairness in the system, we can help move the conversation on.

The entire history of the Cannabis industry has been a story of race, privilege and systemic unfairness, particularly in the US. Now feels like a good time to talk a bit more about how it’s been weaponised against BAME people for almost 100 years.

Cannabis had been widely used for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Even the ships that took the European immigrants to the New World were rigged with ropes made of hemp, and Cannabis was a common medicine in the US. But Mexican immigrants in 1910, fleeing the violent Mexican Revolution, brought with them a taste for recreational marijuana. In fact the most famous song from that era, La Cucaracha, originally claimed the eponymous cockroach was sadly lacking “marihuana que fumar” (marijuana to smoke). 

Fuelled by a xenophobic distaste for the new arrivals, the media typecast the Mexicans as dangerous drug takers (sound familiar?) who’s marijuana use turned them violent and bloodcrazed, imbued with superhuman strength. Anyone who’s ever watched a weed enthusiast inhabit the same spot on a sofa for 6 hours will know that this couldn’t be further from the truth. But apparently Fake News was a thing then too.

Fed by this backdrop of bigotry, the states acted quickly. In 1911 Massachusetts became the first state to restrict the use of marijuana and in 1913 California, Maine and Wyoming went one step further and became the first states to ban Cannabis, hemp and all. Fast forward to the 1930s and the African-American population were now being targeted just as the Mexicans had previously suffered. Marijuana, it was claimed, caused African American men to become aggressive and violent and solicit sex from white women (a cardinal sin in a white supremacist society). In 1931 government research stated that marijuana was linked with crime committed by the “underclass and ethnic minorities”. By 1933 marijuana prohibition had reached 29 states and then in 1937 the Marihuana Tax Act was passed which effectively banned Cannabis on a federal, national level.

It wasn’t just racism – there was good old-fashioned greed. Despite being used for hundreds of years in clothes and paper, Hemp fell foul of vested interests. Lammot du Pont (who’s family fortune originated in the gunpowder business) ran the Dupont Chemical Company and invested heavily in nylon. Meanwhile William Randolph Hearst (who built the Hearst media empire and inspired Citizen Kane) had many interests in paper production. Both saw hemp as (cheaper, more environmentally friendly) competition. The fact that Hearst had lost hundreds of thousands of acres of timberland to the Mexicans during the revolution probably didn’t help matters.

Together, it is said, they saw an opportunity to do away with the competition with a major smear campaign. Hearst funded anti-cannabis propaganda with films such as ‘Reefer Madness’, about a group of high school students lured by pushers into a nightmarish world of hallucinations, manslaughter, suicide, sexual violence and finally madness and marijuana addiction. 

Sadly, Marijuana continued to be used to enable systemic racism. When Harry Anslinger became the first Commissioner of the newly formed Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) in 1930, he made it his life’s work to harass ethnic minorities and set his sights on the swinging Jazz scene, which was synonymous with black culture. Many high-profile figures were avid users - Louis Armstrong swore that a little ‘Mary Warner’ help his creative juices to flow and smoked a reefer on a daily basis. In the years that followed, many people were targeted by Anslinger, whose memos were riven with racism: the clubs sounded like “jungles in the dead of the night” and the (mostly black) Jazz musicians ‘reek of filth’. He told officers to ‘shoot first’ on drug raids.

One of Anslinger’s main targets was jazz legend and civil rights activist Billie Holliday. She shone a light on the ugly state of race relations in the 1950s, with songs like Strange Fruit – an eerie lament to the racist lynchings that haunted America at the time (and that, unbelievably, we seem to have seen in 2020). As a high–profile black entertainer and prominent voice against oppression, she infuriated Anslinger who attempted and failed to ban her from performing the song. He set out to take her down. As well as being a supremely talented singer and (by all accounts) a loving person, she was also a drug user – a fact which he exploited ruthlessly. Stripped of her cabaret performers licence, which prevented her from performing in nightclubs and jazz bars, she started using heroin again.

At 44, she was admitted to hospital for cirrhosis. Anslinger ordered a raid, and heroin was found. Against medical advice, they had her removed from the hospital’s critical list, and so were able to arrest her. Handcuffed to her bed, fingerprints and mugshots taken, she still seemed to respond well to methadone treatment: her health improved and she started to put on weight. But after 10 days an order was issued to stop the methadone. She died days later. Anslinger remarked gleefully “for her… there will be no more Good Morning Heartache”.

In contrast, Judy Garland was another famous performer who had problems with heroin. Not only did Anslinger not pursue this “beautiful gracious lady”, as he referred to her: he even helped her beat her addiction while preventing the law from getting involved.

While not being purely about marijuana, Holiday was a famous casualty in the drug war Anslinger waged against Black America. “The increase [in drug addiction] is practically 100 percent among Negro people”, he falsely claimed.

The UK’s war on Cannabis, while slightly less vicious, was still firmly aimed at Britain’s black communities and those who dared consort with them. The increase in arrests in the 50s and 60s was blamed on “coloured seamen of the East End and clubs frequented by Negro theatrical performers". 

In 1971 Richard Nixon officially declared a war on drugs though in reality he was just ramping Anslinger’s efforts. The war fuelled mass incarceration and intended to attack growing anti-establishment groups: Nixon’s adviser John Ehrlichman has since admitted that the so-called war was a power grab to target “Blacks and Hippies”.

In recent times, this racially biased targetting and enforcement continues to plague the BAME communities on both sides of the Atlantic. In the UK, black people are 6 times more likely to be searched than their white counterparts, despite the fact that drug use is lower amongst black and Asian people.

According to the ACLU, of the 8.2 million marijuana related arrests between 2001 and 2010, 88% were for possession of small amounts of the substance. This draconian approach in the land of the free has led prison rates in the US to become the world’s highest at 724 people per 100,000.

And with changing laws, we’re left with Kafka-esque situations. Michael Thompson is a black 69-year-old, currently 25 years into a 40-60 year prison sentence for selling 3 pounds of marijuana in Michigan. As of 2018 Michigan established a legal marketplace for Cannabis where over $30 million of product was sold in its first 3 months of trading. His prison record is spotless, he’s their longest serving non-violent offender and yet he’s inside for something that, if he did it today, would see him lauded as an entrepreneur. That’s the real Reefer Madness. Hearst, Du Pont, Anslinger and Nixon’s legacy lives on in terrible ways.

Marijuana is now legal in many states in the US, but the overarching federal legalisation is still yet to happen, and the situation is messy: At one time growers in California could legally grow marijuana by state law but face the death penalty from federal courts! The case for federal legalisation is gaining momentum and it could be on the table in the next couple of years. Hopefully the eventual legalisation will lead to less incarceration – and indeed pardons - for ethnic minorities across the board.

But this is one part of a bigger jigsaw. We at The London Botanists hope that the current time of change and reappraisal gets us one step closer to equality and justice for all.