Prohibition: A history of racism
Cannabis prohibition has always been about race. The plant has been weaponised against racial minorities by powerful corporate and political entities since it was first introduced to North America by Mexican Civil War refugees in 1910. Harry J Anslinger, Commissioner of the Federal Borough of Narcotics, responded by motioning for a national ban on cannabis, which was written into law as “marihuana” – a term used to associate Mexican migrants with the now illegal plant in the American consciousness. From Black New-Orleans Jazz musicians to 1960’s civil rights protesters to recent victims of police brutality: all, in turn, have been deliberately associated with cannabis to de-legitimise their voices. The 20th century’s moral panic around cannabis itself has largely been a necessary by-product of a policy enforced to silence marginalised voices and maintain white hegemony. With the prospect of cannabis legalisation becoming more widespread, many civil rights activists are cautiously optimistic. Cannabis prohibition has disproportionately harmed people of colour and helped to propagate the systemic racial barriers that have marginalised them, not just throughout 20th-century history, but still to this day.
Black Americans are 3.6 times more likely than white Americans to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite the fact that the rate of cannabis use is roughly the same for both groups. Pertinently, POC’s are statistically shown to be handed harsher punishments than their demographically equivalent white counterparts when tried for identical arrests. This trend is by no means unique to the United States. Here In the UK, Black people are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs than white people, and 3.4 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession. In the UK, much like in the US, both black and white people are statistically shown to smoke equivalent amounts of weed. The racial injustice of all this demands action on face-value alone. However, this is not even taking into consideration the long-term effects cannabis prohibition has on enforcing systemic racial barriers for individuals, their families and their communities as a whole. Incarceration and deportation split up families, often leaving one parent to both supervise and financially support children and dependents alone, criminal records can mean finding appropriate work can be unfeasibly difficult, sometimes leading frustrated individuals into gang\street crime or sex work to support themselves. Overall communities suffer through unemployment, poverty, hard-drug addiction, increased crime, childhood delinquency and social alienation. This list could go on indefinitely and still barely skims the surface of the ways cannabis prohibition reinforces systemic racial barriers.
Legalisation: Can it heal old wounds?
This is why, for the most part, civil rights campaigners feel legalisation is a step forward in the fight against systemic racial injustice. However, things are not as black and white as they would seem at first glance. Within the expanding discourse concerning legalisation, I have seen many compelling social justice arguments for legalisation. However, within the mainstream of pro-cannabis activism, there is a far greater focus given to arguments discussing medicinal use and tax revenue rather than focussing on undoing decades of racial injustice. Though all of these issues are valid grounds for legalisation, it is worrying to see the key racial component of the debate being side-lined. By whitewashing the debate, legalisation advocates are not only neutralising the strength of their argument, but they are also dictating the priorities and direction of the debate, and thus the values of the legal cannabis industry as we move forward. As a result, we are seeing aspects of cannabis reform not only ignoring the history of racial injustice but actively reinforcing inequality and white privilege.
There have been excellent critiques discussing how even in US states where cannabis is legal, minority groups are still being excluded from enjoying this freedom. In most legal cannabis States, citizens still cannot smoke in public or in rented accommodation – a policy that disproportionately excludes POC’s who are more likely to rent (rather than own) their own home. Similarly, most states prohibit individuals with previous cannabis arrests from participating in the lucrative legal cannabis industry – a policy that will disproportionately exclude POCs due to racial profiling pre-legalisation. Apart from Oregon, no state has taken the logical step of expunging all prior convictions after legalising weed, meaning the historical discrimination of minority communities ensures that the white population has a head start in claiming the multi-billion dollar legal marijuana market. In addition, the astronomical cost of setting up a cannabis company, due to licensing and regulations, often runs into the millions of dollars. Generally, it is only the very wealthy that can afford to get started – and it’s no secret that racial minorities tend to be far less well-off than white people in America and the UK. It is this complex web of intersecting factors of privilege and disadvantage that will prevent many minorities from being able to access the legitimate cannabis market.
Landrace Strains: Exploitation and colonisation with a friendly face
The astronomical barrier for entry has given rise to a new elite set of cannabis capitalists (a.k.a Ganjapreneurs). The fantasy of a small local grow operation is not a viable option when faced with 7 figure overheads. The cannabis capitalist of the approaching decade must think globally to keep afloat and ahead of the competition. It is through the corporatisation and globalisation of the cannabis industry that white hegemony and exploitation evolves from a national concern into a global one. This issue of exploitation to the point of neo-colonialism becomes glaringly obvious when discussing the lucrative demand for ‘landrace’ strains. Some of the worlds most impoverished and vulnerable locations are also host to some of the worlds most rare and valuable cannabis strains. For those unaware, cannabis landrace strains are a variety of cannabis plant that is naturally indigenous and adapted to a certain geographic location. Having not been crossbred with any other strains, landrace’s have less diluted DNA and unique properties developed through thousands of years of adaptation to their unique environment. Many of these plants are exceptionally rare and valuable as their unique properties allow well-funded cannabis cultivators to develop and sell entirely new hybrids and strains to capitalise on the appetite of the western market for the new and exotic. Although this seems like typical supply-and-demand capitalism, it is when we examine the mechanics of this corner of the industry that we see the inherent exploitation and power-imbalance at play – one that is inescapably tied to race, privilege and colonialism.
The landrace “gold rush” is unintentionally highlighted in Vice’s surprisingly uncritical documentary about Arjan Roskam, founder of Greenhouse Seed Co, and the self-styled “king of cannabis”. His company’s plants have won the cannabis cup 30 years running and he sees his boots-on-the-ground approach to “strain hunting” as key to his success. His company is worth millions and he aims to be the world’s first cannabis billionaire. Arjan even has created his own documentary series “Strain Hunters” as well as collaborating with Vice for another series of documentaries that follow Arjan and his team as they travel around the world to remote locations, seldom seen by non-locals, in search of the valuable landrace seeds that they have used to cultivate their already considerable wealth. After a successful hunt, the team fly off to some tropical beach to celebrate on a yacht surrounded by bikinis and biftas. It isn’t that the Greenhouse team are undeserving of their wealth, or success from bringing new strains to the table. But it is clear that this process leads to locals being exploited. What is uncritically shown is a group of millionaire white guys travelling to some of the most impoverished and exploited parts of the world to seek out a natural resource that is completely unique to the region and taking that resource (worth millions) for themselves and the global market. This is not to say that these guys steal crops from farmers outright, in Colombia for example they showed the farmers a poster with their award-winning strains and offered to exchange their GreenHouse Seed Co award-winning Amsterdam strain seeds in exchange for the Colombians’ indigenous Rainforest landrace seeds. It is doubtable this deal would have been agreed on if the Columbian farmers new the true value of their undiscovered landrace vs Greenhouse seeds that can be easily purchased online. Later on, the Greenhouse team also had a stroke of luck In finding another rare plant with viable seeds by the roadside. It’s fair to assume they got this precious commodity, unique to the indigenous region for free. Now it belongs to their company to be spread around the world.
Greenhouse Seeds are an easy example to single out for guilt, as they arguably are one of the most well-known and profitable legal cannabis distributors, as well as openly marketing themselves as “strain hunters.” By no means are their work practices unique. Like many western owned large scale grow operations, they also use farms in countries where cultivating cannabis on a commercial scale is illegal. This means that if caught by authorities it is the farmers who risk the consequences, while their employers enjoy legal immunity abroad. Similar stories can be heard around the globe. Poorer countries with long histories of western exploitation are seeing rich westerners profiting from their countries natural resource while they are excluded. In Jamaica, British colonial authorities spent decades harassing the local Rastafari population for their religious use of the plant. Today, many of those who were once at the forefront of prohibition earn huge sums of money through their connections to medical marijuana companies that grow their produce in Jamaica. Meanwhile, small local farmers who can’t afford a license to grow the plant are not only excluded from the country’s highly lucrative medical cannabis industry but are still prosecuted for cultivating their cannabis illegally.
What can we do?
We have an opportunity to use the cannabis industry to give jobs to communities who need them most, to help recover after years of racial injustice in the guise of a ‘War on Drugs.’ Oakland has launched a cannabis dispensary equity programme in order to “address past disparities in the cannabis industry by prioritising victims of the war on drugs and minimising barriers of entry into the industry.” Canada has developed similar schemes to help Indigenous people benefit from the legal market.
Countries who have suffered under colonial rule should not be bought out for seeds or excluded from the global industry, they should be welcomed in earnest with the autonomy of their own natural resource. We should strive to ensure that it isn’t just the wealthy who benefit from the end of prohibition –
The legitimate cannabis industry presents a great opportunity if we seize it. The history of cannabis prohibition has been one of racial oppression. The path of legalisation should be built on racial justice and seek to heal the wounds of prohibition. However, the corporatization and white-washing of the racial history of cannabis can just as easily become yet another means of upholding racial injustice and reinforcing White privilege, as is already becoming apparent. Fortunately, there’s still time to shift tactics in the pro-cannabis legalisation movement and demand social change, not just corporate dope.