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Dear Potheads: It's time to talk about the history of weed and racism

This is a post I didn't plan on writing for a while because I was hoping to ease into the more serious topics of cannabis by starting out with teaching everyone the lighter, easier notes to prove how not scary it is to the public. But as the world would have it and mainstream media has proven again, those old stereotypes would be used to tarnish the name of a young man who died tragically and unarmed at the hands of a police officer.

As was pointed out in my guide to the basics, the cannabis plants originate primarily from South America, East Asia, and the Middle East. The oldest written record of the indica strain being used is by a Chinese emperor in 2727 B.C. and was used much like most of Chinese herbal medicine is used today: as a healing agent for the sick. This was a medicine used to treat everything from absentmindedness to malaria and dysentery. From China the use of cannabis spread to India, where it became a prominent part of Ayurvedic medicine as a sleep aid.


Meanwhile the sativa plant soon spread to Europe where the Greco Romans were not as studied in the uses of the plant itself, so they would burn the seeds and roots for minor ailments. Unfortunately the Greco Roman literature would take off much wider than that of the Chinese pharmacopoeia. Centuries later the notion of "reefer madness" needed to be blamed on something, so they based on one quote taken out of context.

"The Scythians put the Seeds of this HEMP under the bags, upon the burning stones; and immediately a more agreeable vapor is emitted than from the incense burnt in Greece. The Company extremely transported with the scent, howl aloud."


Here's the thing about this quote. When you read the entire passage, it is clear that this is being written about a funeral ceremony. The howling they did was not some kind of cartoon wolf whistle, but crying and mourning. Way to spin the documentation of someone mourning the loss of a loved one into turning anyone who inhales cannabis into crazed monsters, prohibitionists.

In the time between Herodotus's quote and the outlawing of cannabis, most of the writing about cannabis and hemp were in the name of medicine and industrial uses of hemp. So what changed exactly? Immigration of minorities for cheaper labor and the competition between the lumber and hemp industries.


This was the whole basis used in the 1900's-1930's to outlaw use, claiming that cannabis use would turn everyone into cold blooded killers and madmen. In fact, the word marijuana itself is a pejorative and was popularized by commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics Harry Anslinger, who used the more exotic sounding colloquial Mexican name to sensationalize and other cannabis as something only used by brown people. His close ties to William Randolph Hearst (who had a financial stake in eliminating hemp production) made the word become more common, thanks to headlines such as "Marihuana: The Assassination of Youth" and "Crazed from Smoking Weed: Startling Behavior of Victims of the Marihuana Habit".


Soon there would be popular mythology around the scary brown person who had superhuman strength, which I'm sad to read is a coded implication that still prevails today. This mythology would go on to expand to include all immigrants, African Americans, and entertainers thanks to Harry Anslinger's testimony before Congress.

"Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind… Most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage."


This lead to the many propaganda movies decrying cannabis as destroying America's Youth through movies like "Marihuana: The Devil Weed" and of course, the cult classic "Reefer Madness". Side note, this is what one the stars of Reefer Madness had to say about her role:

"I'm ashamed to say that it's the only one of my films that's become a classic."

Thelma White, 1987

Today the numbers of arrests for cannabis possession still reflect these outdated racist tropes, according to the ALCU black people are 3.7x more likely to be arrested for possession and the number rises in places in the Midwest such as Minnesota (6x) and Iowa (8.34x). The fact is that the majority of cannabis consumers in the United States are white, overwhelmingly so according to this 2009 study by NORML.


The war on drugs is a race war. We are still fighting racist stereotypes built up by a very angry man from nearly 100 years ago, and the law is still letting him win. It's time to drop these arbitrary laws and put an end to the fight against cannabis.


Top image from weeducated.com

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