Juneteenth, Cannabis Legalization, and the Battle for Racial Justice

Juneteenth is not an officially recognized American holiday, but it should be. Black Americans have celebrated it as the anniversary of African American independence from slavery since the 19th century. The holiday gained new attention from non-Black Americans in 2020 in the wake protests against the police murder of George Floyd. But mainstream recognition of Juneteenth needs to acknowledge the fact that the end of slavery, though a critical milestone, also marked the beginning of a host of different modes of violent oppression that white Americans have inflicted upon the Black population. The failures of the Reconstruction era, the sharecropping system, and Jim Crow were just a few of the eras and institutions that maintained white supremacy. The most recent iteration of racist oppression was the war on drugs. 

Declared by Richard Nixon in 1971, the ACLU dubbed the drug war “the New Jim Crow.” Although many states have legalized cannabis since then, stark racial disparities in arrests for marijuana use remain in every single American state. Cannabis and several other substances were criminalized with the express purpose of disempowering and jailing Black citizens, and the effects have been devastating on Black communities. It’s the reason cannabis legalization and racial justice have always been deeply intertwined.

What is Juneteenth?

While the Emancipation Proclamation technically ended slavery in the United States on January 1, 1863, the nation was still embroiled in a bloody civil war, and Abraham Lincoln’s proclamations meant little within the Confederacy. 

On June 19, 1865, Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas, where Confederate holdouts were still buying and selling human beings, and issued an order decreeing that all 250,000 enslaved Black people in the state were now free. The news triggered celebrations across the state, as many Texas enslavers had withheld the news from enslaved people for years after the Confederacy’s surrender. Newly freed people celebrated the anniversary of the announcement on June 19, 1866, and the holiday has been celebrated every year ever since.

How Harry Ansligner’s Anti-Drug Crusade Weaponized Racism

“Marijuana has been intertwined with race and ethnicity in America since well before the word ‘marijuana’ was coined,” says Matt Thompson at National Public Radio. While testifying before Congress in favor of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which began federal restrictions on marijuana, the infamous U.S. Narcotics Commissioner Henry Anslinger connected cannabis consumption with Mexican immigrants and “hundreds of murders, rapes, petty crimes, insanity” and other “revolting crimes.” 

Some historians posit that Anslinger actually manufactured a drug war because the repeal of Prohibition was going to put him out of a job. But racism made it relatively simple for him to demonize substances that had been sold over-the-counter in American pharmacies for decades. 

A selection of Ansligner’s many bigoted quotes:

“Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”

 “You smoke a joint and you’re likely to kill your brother.” 

“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., 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.”

If you’re reading this article, you likely oppose drug prohibition. Still, it’s imperative to know that Anslinger and his attitudes formed the foundation of the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the white supremacist attitudes he espoused directly led to laws targeting Black Americans and people of color for drug possession.

The Real Reason Behind Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs

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In 1971, President Richard Nixon famously declared a “war on drugs.” One of his top advisors has since admitted that drug criminalization was a political weapon intended to “disrupt” Black civil rights activists and the anti-war movement.

John Ehrlichman, a Nixon aide on domestic affairs who was convicted of crimes connected to the Watergate scandal, was very frank with writer Dan Baum when explaining what the war on drugs was really all about:

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

As in Anslinger’s era, widespread, unconscious racism made it fairly easy to connect cannabis consumption with criminality, deviance, and violence in the minds of the public, and to portray weed sellers as preying on innocent (white) youth while millions of Black Americans and people of color paid the price. 

Fixing the Race-Based Disparities Created by the Drug War

Though America seems to be waking up to the insanity of the Drug War, racist drug laws and draconian sentencing policies continue to produce profoundly unequal outcomes for communities of color. Even as recently as 2020, 3.6 times as many Black people were still being arrested for cannabis possession than whites, despite similar rates of consumption. As of 2018, nearly 80 percent of people in federal prison and almost 60 percent of people in state prison for drug offenses were Black or Latino. These continuing injustices are why so many in the cannabis community still push for equity-based, reparative policies for legal cannabis businesses. Getting rid of racist Prohibition-era laws is an important step, but restoring economic stability and wealth-building opportunities to communities most harmed by the drug war is just as essential.

Supporting Social Equity and Racial Justice in Cannabis

The trend within cannabis to honor Juneteenth, educate people on the racial injustices of cannabis prohibition, and look for concrete ways the industry can address some of the harms done to marginalized communities by Prohibition is a positive one. Papa & Barkley, one of California’s leading brands, now gives all full-time staff the day off in honor of the holiday. California Minority Alliance (L.A.), a non-profit trade organization founded by Virgil Grant and Donnie Anderson, fights for the rights of Blacks and minorities in the cannabis industry at the city and state level. The group worked with the city of Oakland to establish a cannabis equity program that required half of all cannabis business permits be issued to those with past convictions or who have lived in communities with a disproportionate number of cannabis arrests. M.G. Islands group (L.A.), founded by Justinian Mason, empowers people and businesses of color through education, coaching, and access to the cannabis industry. Supernova Women (Oakland, Calif.) is a group of women volunteers that fosters a space for hard conversations and key programs for diversity, as well as offering events and services centered around Black women in cannabis.

Legal cannabis business continues to bring in billions, yet an estimated 40,000 people are still in jail for cannabis convictions. The Farmer and the Felon is an excellent brand trying to change that. The company donates a portion of its profits to The Last Prisoner Project, a non-profit working to help free people incarcerated for nonviolent crimes, and has already donated more $30,000 since launching. 

You can honor Juneteenth by following the organizations listed above, sharing their messages, supporting cannabis equity reforms in your city, and using Grassdoor to seek out brands working to be part of the solution.

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