Thursday, 21 March marks the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The UN awareness event has been held ever since 1966.
So what does all of this have to do with cannabis we hear you ask?
In short, everything.
From pioneers who sacrificed their freedom during prohibition to one of the words we use for cannabis, race is indelibly linked to the herb. So as we enter a new chapter in the story of cannabis we wanted to look back at some of the darker periods of its history to remind ourselves why the battle for legalization is about so much more than cannabis itself.
The use of the word ‘marijuana’ has long been a source of debate within the cannabis community, but as weed has started to enter the mainstream the discussion of its origin is even more important.
The use of the word dates back to the early 20th Century when the criminalization of pot first began. In an echo of today’s political landscape, sections of US society at the time were up in arms over immigration and there was a growing wave of negative sentiment towards Mexicans in particular, who were moving north to escape civil war.
Alongside the arrival of these immigrants the act of smoking pot also became popularized for the first time in American society. Linguists believe that the word ‘marijuana’ originated from Mexican Spanish of the era, but the word itself would not take on negative associations until politicians of the day started to use it as a racially-charged form of rhetoric.
It was at this time in America’s history that prohibition began to be fervently enforced. As the country moved into the Great Depression people searched for a scapegoat that they could blame for their ills, and the influx of immigrants became easy targets. Public figures echoed those concerns to appeal to the people, but one man in particular used the correlation between immigration and cannabis to racialize its use.
That man was Harry Anslinger, the first director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Anslinger worked to outlaw the plant, and as part of an outspoken campaign against its use he employed propaganda to link it to the immigrants that Americans were deeply suspicious of at the time.
You need only look back at some of his words to see the extremes he took it to. During one testimony to Congress he reportedly stated:
“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.”
In another, Anslinger’s racist rhetoric continued: “Reefer makes (racist word for African Americans, we don’t want to write it here) think they’re as good as white men…the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races.” (WTF!)
The abhorrent statements took hold, and as the campaign to criminalize cannabis gathered pace, the term ‘marijuana’ became indelibly linked with Anslinger’s opinions.
Of course it’s not like the word itself is racist, but its associations with prohibition and the prejudice of the time make it inherently unpalatable. That’s why we don’t use it at Qwest, and why we believe that it should be consigned to the history books as we enter a new age of cannabis acceptance.
If you believe that the prejudiced association between recreational cannabis and race started and ended in the 1930s then you are sadly mistaken. Indeed the kind of discrimination that Anslinger was preaching almost a century ago continues to exist in America today.
Critics have constantly questioned America’s ongoing War on Drugs as a war on pot, one that particularly targets ethnic minorities. According to one report from ACLU, which looked at arrests over a ten year period, African Americans were 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white people. That number is even more shocking when you take into account the fact that usage is roughly equal between both groups.
Even where laws have been relaxed the inequality still remains. In fact according to recent research in Baltimore, where penalties were reduced in 2014, 96% of all people arrested for possession were black.
The numbers themselves are shocking. But it’s also vital that we remember the people behind the statistics, the individuals who have been arrested, imprisoned, and had their lives ruined as a result of prejudices that are a hangover of a bygone era.
Though progress may sometimes feel painstakingly slow, the world is changing. The legalization of cannabis in Canada is undoubted proof of that.
As a society we should all be working towards a world without racism, but as a community cannabis users have an opportunity to show the rest of society the path they should follow.
This is our chance to own that change, to create something new, something that is inherently better than what went before. As a community legalization is our opportunity to not only show the world that cannabis use isn’t bad for society (when used intelligently and safely by adults), it’s actually positive for it.
Cannabis connects communities, creates opportunities, and breaks down barriers. We’ve all forged friendships through our passion for pot, and we all know the plant’s power to bring people together no matter what their race, religion, or background may be.
In our house all are welcome and everyone is equal. They always have been, and always will be. And today, just like any other, we should take time to remember that.