Black History is Intertwined with the History of American Cannabis

By Rolling Up

Cannabis history has mostly been shrouded in the dark as far as agricultural crops go. The legacy of cannabis has been connected with our country’s inherent racism that exists today. It started long before Nixon failed his War on Drugs. It’s time for a change and examine the history that has brought on such stereotypes because it doesn’t appear in many traditional history books.


The history of cannabis is messy. The earliest origins of cannabis were in central Asia and Southern Siberia. Every major civilization in history has shown evidence of cannabis and hemp use for clothing, religious significance, recreational psychoactivity, or medicinal purpose. 


Cannabis didn’t become widespread in the Western parts of Africa until World War II. It was introduced to British and French armies. As cannabis progressed in society, it became scorned. 

In 2014, University of Kansas professor Barney Warf published a paper called, “High Points: An Historical Geography of Cannabis” in the Geographical Review academic journal revealing the movements that caused imperialism and war and how it affected the history of weed. 


Like everything else, the hemp industry was built on slave labor in the United States. According to writer and activist, D.M. Blunted, “Just before the Revolutionary War broke out, Kentucky was becoming populated with settlers from Virginia, bringing with them hemp seeds and enslaved West Africans. It soon made Kentucky the largest producer of hemp and one of the states with the largest slave populations. Like cotton and tobacco, hemp was a back-breaking crop to produce that paid owners well and continued to fuel the greedy demand for free labor. Kentucky became set as the nation’s leader in hemp for a hundred years until the demand fell during the Civil War in 1861.” 


As early as the 1800s, hemp was used for making clothing, paper, and rope. An article from an 1876 New York Times article even cites the positive use of marijuana for dropsy, an old term for the swelling of soft tissues due to the accumulation of excess water. 


The banning of marijuana in the United States can be pointed to the name Harry Anslinger. Anslinger made it a mission to ban all drugs in the U.S., including cannabis. He was the first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics. His racists views had a devastating effect on his lawmaking. He used unsupported scientific use of marijuana and linking it to violence. In a radio address, he declared, “slaves to this narcotic, continuing addiction until they deteriorate mentally, become insane, turn to violent crime and murder.” Anslinger’s strategy was racial. He claimed that black people and latinos were the primary users of marijuana. Cannabis was officially outlawed in 1937, partly due to the racists in the country who shared the same ideals as Anslinger. The war on drugs offers a shameful episode of our past.


As the cannabis industry grows, we have to keep reexamining as an industry to prioritize inclusion for black entrepreneurs. It is important to make the distinction between equality and equity when it comes to healing black and brown communities. Equity and inclusion need to be at the forefront of every legal cannabis business.

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