Weed and Racism Share a Common Past

A primer on the tangled roots of pot and prejudice.

Today’s issue is long but important. Read to the end and I’ll treat you to a link to a story about the only person to be “buried” on the moon!

When did you first hear about the War on Drugs? For some, it was via the D.A.R.E. program, which borrowed time from classrooms to warn students about the dangers of doing crack by frying an egg. A somewhat nebulous term, the phrase is now spoken of either in the past tense or with the facetious disdain of a comically abhorrent mistake.

For others, perhaps the names of some of the war’s greatest architects ring a bell.

If you aren’t familiar with top-shelf assholes like Harry Anslinger or Nixon advisor John Ehrlichman , I wrote a bit about their role in constructing the carceral state we face today in a recent story for Bloom & Oil:

To understand the connection between cannabis law and systemic racism, we can start with the name Henry Anslinger. As the Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (a precursor to the DEA), Anslinger is unsentimentally regarded as an architect of what we now refer to as the War on Drugs. Anslinger was a noted racist, once writing in an article his belief that “reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”

Anslinger would codify his hateful rhetoric into law with the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act. This cycle would play out again under the Nixon Administration. When President Nixon declared marijuana to be “public enemy #1” in 1970, it was merely a convenient cover to fell black radicals and those protesting the Vietnam war in one fell swoop.

Former Nixon advisor John Ehrlichman admitted as much decades later. His quote underscores the argument in favor of cannabis legalization by revealing that it wasn’t the plant they were after at all — it was suppression of black voices and the anti-war movement. 

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

By the late 1980s, draconian penalties for drug offenses established the framework for the mass incarceration of black and brown Americans today. As the Drug Policy Alliance notes in a summary of this timeframe, only 2-6% of the population felt that drug abuse was the biggest problem in the U.S. in 1985. By 1989, that figure had snowballed to 64%. Every step of the way, cannabis became an easier and easier gateway — not to drug addiction, but to arrest for minorities. 

Before Nixon struck on the idea to link cannabis with leftist agitators as a pretext for quelling their momentum, a similar approach was employed by the U.S. in response to the nearly 900,000 Mexicans who legally immigrated here between 1910 and 1920.

Here’s what they saw in the local papers:

Archival newspaper clippings recently published by the Library of Congress reveal a concerted campaign during this period to link cannabis with Mexican immigrants and to portray the plant as some kind of devil’s crop. No matter that cannabis was already in fairly wide use as a tincture in the U.S.

As I wrote for Bloom & Oil, this moment in history is where the phrase “marijuana” actually entered the American lexicon:

As Mexicans were immigrating, the term “marijuana” (as well as its bastardized sibling, “marihuana”) not-coincidentally began its rise as the defacto term for weed.

Far from being a term of endearment, marijuana was instead utilized as a dog whistle for “foreign” and “exotic.” Archived news items from a variety of sources reveal how the public’s perception was likely shifted by crude caricatures and hysteria-inspired conjecture. It’s nearly impossible overstate the salacious nature of what qualified as reporting a century ago.

In a story published in the Memphis Appeal on April 18, 1887, for example, the paper rather gleefully details how a Mexican priest allegedly “committed suicide by smoking several enormous cigarettes of marihuana” after flogging the corpse of a dead wizard.

“This deadly drug is smoked by the soldiers in the army,” noted the New-York Tribune in an article titled “Stops Sale of Maddening Drug.” Published on December 24, 1905, the story further details how “marihuana” is “smoked like tobacco,” leading the user to “soon” go “wildly insane.”

The Library of Congress’s new timeline devoted to cannabis features dozens of similar stories published by outlets across the U.S. Together, they begin to reveal how repeated rhetoric can stick in the mind and sway opinion. Positing cannabis as “locoweed” and changing its terminology to stress an erroneous correlation with a foreign land both undoubtedly helped to propel weed’s heel turn in America in the early twentieth century.

In truth, this orchestrated retconning of the origins of cannabis was merely a thinly-veiled campaign of xenophobia.

By rebranding the plant, people stopped seeing it as an innocuous tincture ingredient and instead began to regard it as a dangerous drug. The slippery slope of prejudiced logic is easy enough to predict. Told marijuana is dangerous, people wanted to blame the source. Tie the name of the plant to the people you want to get rid of for your own racist reasons and you’ve got the recipe that led to the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act.

The present-day consequences of these actions are truly incalcuable. In May, Fidel Torres, a 62-year-old man serving an eighteen year prison sentence for marijuana charges, died of COVID.

His crime?

Cannabis-related convictions for possession with intent to distribute as well as aiding and abetting. At the time, U.S. District Judge George Kazen of the Southern District of Texas found Torres guilty after the defendant opted for a bench trial. During the trial, federal prosecutors would also point to two previous marijuana-related convictions on Torres’ record in favor of a lengthy sentence.

Judge Kazen would further go on to deny Torres a sentence reduction he was seemingly qualified for in 2014. In the wake of revised U.S. Sentencing Commission guidelines released that year, Torres was eligible for early release. Instead, Kazen denied the request, citing the inmate’s “behavior in custody” as grounds for his decision.

At the start of this year, Fidel Torres was two years away from at last, once again becoming a free man. Then, on May 2, the 62-year-old Torres tested positive for COVID-19. By May 6, he was on a ventilator. He died on May 20.

Thankfully, a select few in the industry are at last beginning to recognize the urgency of a situation that allows some to prosper while others perish.

One such person is Dennis Hunter, co-founder of a new weed line called the Farmer and the Felon. Hunter is all too aware of how the system workes, having served a sentence of more than six years stemming from a 1998 raid on one of his Humboldt grow sites.

Today, his company, CannaCraft is one of the biggest name in the field when it comes to cannabis manufacturing in California. Hunter believes that weed will never truly be legal until the pot prisoner populace is reduced to zero. That’s why he created this new flower line.

Here’s a bit from a story I did on the brand’s launch. It starts with a quote from Ned Fussell, the other co-founder of CannaCraft:

“We created Farmer and the Felon as a way to use our personal experiences in the cannabis space and our products for the greater good of the entire community. We hope that Farmer and the Felon’s message and cause will help change the future of legalization and decriminalization. That starts by reversing the lasting damage that the failed war on drugs has had on non-violent cannabis offenders.”

The Farmer & The Felon also serves as a chance for CannaCraft to support the Last Prisoner Project (LPP). The non-profit’s stated mission is to get every nonviolent cannabis prisoner released from incarceration. To help that cause, a percentage of the proceeds from each Farmer & The Felon sale will benefit LPP’s ongoing efforts.

This pairing is no coincidence, given Hunter’s position as a member of the LPP board. A formidable force, the board also features Steve DeAngelo, Damian Marley, and Melissa Etheridge and other industry heavyweights. At the heart of LPP’s mission: the 40,000 non-violent prisoners who remain incarcerated today.

Even as recent polls indicate that two-third of Americans favor cannabis legalization, there are still people in prison. The issue of mass incarceration goes hand-in-hand with the movement to legalize weed. As the onset of COVID-19 continues to spread and threaten vulnerable jails and prison populations, the LPP’s work has only taken on added urgency.

The takeaway here is that our country has, for over a century, weaponized cannabis as a tool of oppression. Even if the last handful of years has seen a seismic shift in public opinion, such small steps do virtually nothing for the countless communities ravaged by excessive police patrols and the families forever splintered by late-night raids and three-strike charges.

Though equity programs have offered some individuals a chance to enter an industry that recently surpassed $1 billion sales in statewide sales, they often present a bureocratic labyrinth that qualified candidates lack the resources to navigate.

Next week, “Rolling Stoned” will feature the story of Reese Benton, who recently became the first Black woman to own a cannabis dispensary in San Francisco. Here’s a preview of what it took for her open the doors of Posh Green:

If Reese Benton ever wants to make a movie about what it took to open Posh Green, she certainly has enough material for the script. The first Black woman to open a cannabis dispensary in San Francisco had to overcome many obstacles on her journey. But after weathering a rocky upbringing, NIMBY obstructionists, a global pandemic, and an attempted heist, Benton has come out on top.

Okay, that’s a wrap. We’ll be back next Wednesday. In the interim, definitely read this amazing Atlas Obscura story about Eugene Shoemaker, the only person to date to be buried on the Moon!

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