In honor of Black History Month, we’re highlighting Black connections to the cannabis industry. The turbulent history of cannabis in the U.S. is undoubtedly interlaced with our country’s legacy of institutionalized racism. During the time of slavery, cannabis was cultivated and harvested by slaves in America.

Unknown Black slave harvesting hemp on hand brakes in a field of hemp stalk stacks. Source: John Winston Coleman Jr. via the University of Kentucky

America’s hemp industry began in Kentucky, where West African slaves grew hemp seeds for Virginian slave owners. It was the home of both the largest hemp producer and one of the largest slave populations in the country. Let’s rewind to explore how cannabis was introduced to America.

As you might’ve seen in a previous blog article, cannabis was originally cultivated in Asia. In the 13th century, Arab merchants introduced cannabis to Africans and called it “Dagga.” It moved through the continent from there. According to historical records, Indian indentured laborers in South Africa used the plant for centuries before it surfaced in West Africa by way of French and British troops during World War II.

In the 19th century, British troops shipped Indian slaves from Africa to the Caribbean. At the time, slave traders used cannabis to placate slaves. When cannabis finally arrived in the Caribbean, it was the turning point that led to the dissemination of cannabis around the world.

At the turn of the 20th century, during the Mexican Revolution, a combination of immigrants fleeing from violence and Caribbean sailors traveling to the New World introduced cannabis to the southern states. While BBIPOC consumed cannabis for recreation, white Americans who identified with racist ideologies characterized the enduring stereotype that whites condemned it.

Jesce Horton, a Black business owner who wants to see more Black businesses emerge and succeed in the industry. Source: Jesce Horton, The Guardian

This history of cannabis led to its prohibition in the 1930s. At the start of the decade, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics appointed its first commissioner, Harry Anslinger. He made fear-mongering the hallmark of the impending War on Drugs and associated cannabis with people of color and jazz performers. As a result, Nixon’s War on Drugs disproportionately impacted communities of color.

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. Do 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.” – Nixon’s Chief Domestic Advisor, John Ehrlichman, Harper’s Magazine, 1994

The first states that legalized cannabis are the same states in which Black and brown folks are 10 times more likely to get arrested for cannabis-related offenses than white people. When recreational cannabis was legalized, it made room for more public conversations about the racial injustices related to cannabis. Finally, social equity programs are becoming part of those conversations to address the harm done by the War on Drugs in communities of color and help marginalized and oppressed people break into the industry.

Photo Credit: Cornelio Greer

There is still much more equity to establish in the cannabis industry beyond what city programs can offer. The entire industry should be proactively providing opportunities to promote BBIPOC from leadership, cultivation, and manufacturing to distribution and retail operations. Those efforts and Black history shouldn’t be confined to the 28 days of February either — it should be a year-round, lifelong initiative. ECO is pioneering these initiatives, including one that reserves 50% of its staff positions for formerly incarcerated folks who were directly impacted by the War on Drugs.

Street art in Los Angeles Photo credit: Mike Von

It doesn’t start and end with ECO, though. To truly elevate and celebrate Black lives in the cannabis world, the entire industry needs to come together to make it happen. What’s your local dispensary doing to commemorate Black history all year round? Drop a comment and share it with us!