State-sponsored propaganda is nothing new. It has been successfully deployed across the full spectrum of political systems throughout history. From normalising the blatantly sinister agenda of the Nazis to swaying public opinion on war to converting policy into law for purposes that typically betray what they say on the proverbial tin. The propaganda machine has long been utilised in the convoluted war on cannabis.
Exploring the history, nature, and the brand of propaganda used to criminalise cannabis is critical to understand not only why cannabis law exists in the first place, but, more troublingly, to understand how cannabis law continues to perpetuate the subjugation of people of colour today. Make no mistake, the case of the Government vs. the Public via cannabis is complex and is inextricably linked to one of the most poignant movements of our time: Black Lives Matter.
Let’s be clear right from the start – cannabis is not a controlled property because it poses a danger to society. Cannabis remains illegal because of money and the preservation of power. Despite the thorough and time-tested research which has produced consistent passes from medical communities and health commissions across the globe; despite the findings of several extensive government-sanctioned studies concluding no harmful societal impact (Shafer Commission, Wootton Report); and despite the resounding lack of data showing that cannabis in its unmodified form is harmful to individuals and wider society, cannabis and the stubborn laws and ideas around it continue to be hotly debated. Why is this? This is because the propaganda campaign seeks to tell us that cannabis IS a danger to society, and that the laws are designed to protect us.
Where are we at?
In response to continued pressure to review cannabis law in 2011, the Home Office said they had ‘’no intention of liberalising our drugs laws. Drugs (sic) are illegal because they are harmful – they destroy lives and cause untold misery to families and communities.”
Noting the sweeping statement that was not backed by any data references – an increasing number of researchers, politicians, journalists, sociologists, health professionals, and scientists along with an ever-growing portion of the public, continue to call out and challenge the myth of ‘destruction and misery’. Many are questioning whether the destruction of lives and the misery to families are caused by cannabis use itself, as the government would have us believe, or perhaps more a consequence of the constructed criminality around it.
According to a 2018 report in The Guardian “in 2016, there were almost 600,000 US marijuana arrests, more than for all violent crimes combined. The vast majority of those pot arrests were for low-level possession – and disproportionately affected minorities. Relatively few of the 600,000 will serve extended prison sentences for marijuana-related offences, but having a past conviction can still block access to housing, student loans and employment.”
The quick math here translates to low-level possession + minority = blocked access to housing, education, and employment. Enter ‘destruction and misery’. . .
The truth is that the basis of current day dominant rhetoric, which upholds the law, is residual. It is not rooted in modern research (never mind the thousands-long year history of therapeutic use in Eastern cultures, and the widespread medical use in both the United States and Britain in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries), but entrapped by interests and forces inherited by narratives concocted to serve those very interests and forces, and disproportionately punishing people that are not white.
Let’s get into a bit of legal history and qualify this a bit more. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on the use of cannabis as a recreational drug rather than its medical and industrial uses, though it is worth noting that the UK remains the largest exporter of legal cannabis in the world, and that synthetic alternatives to hemp (and those that stood to enhance their wealth through its trade instead of hemp), also play a role in the sordid history of hidden agendas when it comes to cannabis law.
The Dangerous Drug Act of 1920, put into UK law in 1921, did not include cannabis at all. However, despite the findings by the British Indian Hemp Drugs Commission in 1894, which “judged that ‘little injury’ was caused to society by the use of cannabis”, cannabis restrictions were nevertheless introduced in a 1928 addendum to the Act following an international drugs conference where Britain succumbed to foreign influence and opinion that generally postured, with little, conflated or faked data, that cannabis use was, indeed, a threat to society after all.
Post-World War II, societal changes influenced by a generation of women empowered by the sense of independence gained whilst the men were sent to fight, contrasted with a generation of men largely traumatised by their collective experience at war and then returning to a much-changed landscape at home, and set in the context of one of the largest periods of resettlement across the world, cannabis use was, for a time, relegated as a fringe issue in the UK.
It is against this post-war backdrop that the first cannabis drug raid in Britain took place. Club Eleven, a popular jazz club located in London’s West End, fronted by the infamous Ronnie Scott amongst other popular musicians of the day, was considered fringe at the time – dismissed by the mainstream as an inconsequential space of ill-repute where young white women, characterised as foolish and vulnerable prey, mixed with foreign seamen and black entertainers.
This social scene was not perceived as any great threat to the status quo but was ultimately set upon with the intention of keeping certain notions alive – notions that were inflamed by well-funded American players with a stake in the game. On page two of Marek Kohn’s Dope Girls – the birth of the British drug underground, he contends that “if the ultimate menace of drugs had to be summarised in a single proposition, it would be that they facilitated the seduction of young white women by men of other races.”
If it served the powers that be to keep selling the story that young, white drug-taking women were lost and weak (and by the way, it still does), and to keep repeating the myth that black and brown men are on one side of the coin inconsequential, and on the other side a complete menace to society (err, shakes head, yeah, us neither), and to use the convergence of these fallacies to stoke or reinvigorate fear in the public (for the purposes of ultimately gaining approval so that they could seize control of the trade and use of drugs), then it was very much to the chagrin of the politicians seeking to use these tired tales in order to serve up their war on drugs (for very often personal ends), that the bust at Club Eleven resulted in the arrest of several young white men…
By this time, the anti-cannabis movement was in full swing in the United States, spearheaded by a one Harry J. Anslinger, the first commissioner appointed to the newly created Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930. It is important to highlight here that this bureau sat under the Treasury’s purview. As such, this was for the purpose of addressing lost tax revenue and, for the record, not as a matter of public health or crimefighting, though the latter has become big business too.
It is known that a younger Anslinger took no issue with cannabis use as many on-record statements demonstrate. And whilst there is plenty of debate, still, around Anslinger’s true motives behind his thirty-plus year crusade against cannabis (and other illicit drugs), the truth on that matter does not change the fact that many of his most effective tactics preyed upon, stoked, and exploited racial fears and tensions, and was mixed with a dash of gender discrimination for good measure.
“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.” – Harry J. Anslinger
Anslinger embarked on a very targeted attack on Jazz culture. He used his power to harass and hinder the careers of musicians including Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday (who was arrested on her death bed). His agency worked tirelessly and globally to invoke and spread rhetoric that married cannabis use to minorities, with a more implicit narrative that white women (aka the fabric of traditional society) are the ultimate victims.
Points, the Alcohol and Drug History Society’s blog has covered this topic with gusto. A recent post exploring tabloid behaviour around this time stated that “cannabis offered the press a tool to stoke up fears surrounding the new black population, and to exploit the British concern over what “their” women were doing and who they were sleeping with. The similarity in tone and language to 1920s “drug” articles—as well as more modern ones—had little to do with the characteristics of the drugs themselves, but the similarity in social fears.”
Whilst Club Eleven was ultimately shut down following the raid, and despite the continued pressure from Anslinger’s bureau which had begun infiltrating the United Nations, the British stance on cannabis policy remained liberal in contrast to that of the United States until the late nineteen-sixties.
In 1967, the Home Office instructed an investigation into the ‘’pharmacological and medical aspects’’ of cannabis. Published in 1969, The Wootton Report concluded that there was “no evidence that this activity is causing violent crime or aggression, anti-social behaviour, or is producing in otherwise normal people conditions of dependence or psychosis requiring medical treatment.” It also stated unequivocally that cannabis was less dangerous than alcohol.
Nevertheless, in accordance with the United Nations’ Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs cannabis was included and classified as a Class B controlled drug in the United Kingdom under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Alcohol, as we all know, has never featured in either document.
So why is cannabis policy so entangled with racial and social equality issues when the reality does not measure up to the myth? It is important to double-underline that the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, in practice, is about the licensing of drugs as its primary role and function. The keyword being ‘licensing’, the entirety of the original document includes merely two references to public health. ‘Social problems’, on the other hand, which obviously have a lot to do with licensing, feature five times in the document, with four of those appearing in section 1.
Screenshot of Section 1 of the Misuse of Drug Act 1971 https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1971/38/section/1
What constitutes a ‘social problem’ escapes definition in this document, by the way. But it sure does sound like the threat of ‘social problems’ were fundamental to get this legislation through and, evidently, either real or imagined would do.
Taking us full circle back to Club Eleven and reflecting that we haven’t been able to act on what we have learned in the seventy intervening years since that raid, a recent article in The Independent stated that “official figures show that black people are 10 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people in England and Wales, but that drugs are less likely to be discovered.”
Stateside, the previously cited Guardian article reported that “Statistics show different races use marijuana at roughly the same rate, but racial minorities are far more likely to face punishment. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, between 2001 and 2010, African Americans were arrested for marijuana possession at almost four times the rate of whites.”
To be clear, in both the United Kingdom and the United States, the data shows that cannabis law disproportionately targets and penalises black lives. Not cannabis itself, but cannabis law. This, adding insult to the injury that the legacy of the myths improvised against black lives and were used to make cannabis criminal in the first place. Ask yourself this: if cannabis law were dismantled or even revised tomorrow, how many lives would stand to improve vs. how many lives would be at risk to deteriorate in contrast to the current reality as a result?
This article could go on and on presenting information and evidence in support of its opening premise, but it feels right to end with a quote from Johann Hari – writer, journalist, and one of the leading voices challenging how society treats addiction and drug law.
In his renowned book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, Hari writes that “More than 50 percent of Americans have breached the drug laws. Where a law is that widely broken, you can’t possibly enforce it against every lawbreaker. The legal system would collapse under the weight of it. So you go after the people who are least able to resist, to argue back, to appeal—the poorest and most disliked groups. In the United States, they are black and Hispanic people, with a smattering of poor whites.”
Perhaps to call it state-sponsored propaganda is a step not far enough given the evidence. Propaganda, after all, is usually found to be a smoke screen for things far more sinister. . .
How much do you know about the war on drugs? Take Johann Hari’s quiz to find out here.