Unpacking A History of Racism & Appropriation for Women and People of Color in the Cannabis Industry
As an Oakland, California native one recreational activity amongst my cohorts was smoking weed. I never did become an avid smoker, though, primarily because of social politics. My understanding of how Black bodies in the cannabis community were discriminated against outweighed my thirst for adding that to my hippie resume. However, that didn’t curb my understanding for it’s health benefits as a natural remedy across mental, emotional, physical, creative and recreational avenues – especially as a Black body living in America. So let me share a bit of my perspective from a social and culturally sustainable lens.
Although the history of cannabis is spotty, it’s pretty well known that it originated in Asia & India where it was used for medical and spiritual purposes, traveled through Jamaica where it became a part of the Black religious consciousness movement known as “Rastafari,” and was eventually introduced to the US mainstream by way of Mexican immigrants during the Mexican Revolution. Cannabis has been intertwined with race and ethnicity for years as a means for impoverished and socially disenfranchised Afro-Jamaican, Black American and Latino communities to make money and heal through systematic oppression. From a sustainability lens, communities of color have inherently had a connection to the earth and have been using natural herbs since before it was an American trend, much like many of today’s wellness trends which have origins in communities of color.
One thing that’s important to put into context is that the Black freedom and liberation movements have been heavily focused on the intersectional issues of the prison-industrial complex, which is the nucleus of racism. Nixon and Reagan’s war on drugs (which initially focused on crack) was quickly used as a catalyst to systematically enforce economic racism by feeding the dehumanization of Black bodies and the profitability of prisons. Poverty was systematically created with red lining, defunding of educational systems, food deserts, etc - causing drug dealing to become a survival mechanism. Despite the fact that white people’s crack possession and use was statistically more than Black people, POC were profiled and sentenced to life sentences much more often. Long after the crack era, there were more than 1.5 million drug arrests in 2014, of which more than 80% were for possession only and almost half were for marijuana. According to the ACLU, cannabis use is roughly equal among Blacks and whites, yet Blacks are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for possession with a current prison population of almost 2.5 million (more than any other country). Most states today are still disproportionately handing out mandatory sentences to POC.
Black and Latino incarceration is America’s modern day form of slavery and cannabis has represented the criminalization of Black people for years. Because of this, when I see an article like Vogue’s recent How Cannabis is Fueling a New Fitness Movement with a photo of two white women doing yoga, I have to dismantle the facts that 1) cannabis has been a staple wellness medium for years and 2) Black and brown people are systematically incarcerated for possession of it. It speaks to the tremendous inequalities that define America which cannot be ignored. White venture capitalists are winning from this $6 billion industry while former felons (who for the most part are poor Black people trying to make a living) struggle to get a nibble of that pie.
Cannabis, much like many of today’s conscious trends, is rooted in ethnic sustainability. From my perspective growing up in Oakland and living in Brooklyn, it has been used as a recreational tool to subconsciously fight against the layers of stress that come with living in an urban community as well as a way to aid in creative ingenuity. Additionally, it has been used in pro-Black wellness and general health spaces for years. Unfortunately, cannabis has also systematically been used as an excuse for the incarceration of Black and brown bodies while simultaneously being enjoyed uninterrupted by white youth and exploited for profitability by white moguls.
In understanding the complexities around the cannabis movement, there needs to be an approach to activism around it instead of a mainstream, glorified, white washed pop culture narrative of how it’s now “cool” to be a pot smoker. People of all ethnicities have been using cannabis for years, but Black and brown people are undoubtedly the ones who have been disproportionately criminalized for it. The racial bias is absolutely nothing to breeze over and the racial disparities continue to negatively affect people of color in many ways, with many POC remaining in prison for possession or other cannabis-related crimes even in states where it is recreationally legal, like California.
The celebration of what I call “white weed” ...