A look back on the history of the BIPOC community’s early association with cannabis, the negative propaganda attached to their consumption, the current state of BIPOC cannabis business ownership, and how to improve it.
The Harmful Roots of American Cannabis Propaganda
The history of cannabis in the United States is long and complex. Since our country’s inception, cannabis has been deeply woven into the fabric of society. It was used in medicines and made into materials for clothing, rope, sails, and more. A law was made in 1619 in Jamestown, Virginia, mandating that all settlers were required to grow cannabis.
The first slaves arrived in Hampton, Virginia, in 1619, 35 miles from Jamestown. Following the hemp growing mandate in Virginia, slaves began working the cannabis fields. Due to the resourcefulness of this law, Massachusetts and Connecticut also formed similar legislation.
But at the end of the 19th century, a sharp turn in American policy and government agendas changed the public’s perception of cannabis for decades.
At the head of it was Harry J. Anslinger, the first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who served under five U.S. Presidents from 1930 to 1965. As he served during the peak of segregation and Jim Crow laws, Anslinger was vocal about his disdain for drugs and Black and Brown people. His relentless and well-documented pursuit of Black jazz singer Billie Holiday continued for years, even to her deathbed in 1959.
Billie Holiday was outspoken against racism and segregation, made evident by her song Strange Fruit. She also battled drug addiction, and Anslinger made it a personal mission to make an example of her to the American people. Anslinger’s witchhunt against Billie Holiday is just one example of his racist and harmful propaganda that drastically changed how Americans view cannabis and the people who consume cannabis.
He also attached racist stigmas to Mexican immigrants who came to the United States after the Mexican Revolution in 1910. Cannabis consumption is prevalent in Mexican culture.
They continued their traditions in the United States, much to Anslinger’s disapproval, saying things like, “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 usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and others.”
Anslinger’s Reefer Madness propaganda subsequently bled into American culture for decades, and we are still battling it as we fight to legalize cannabis at the federal level in 2023.
BIPOC Communities Are Still Underrepresented in Cannabis
Americans have said yes to recreational cannabis in 21 states and yes to medical cannabis in 37 states as of February 2023, and that number is only growing.
However, the federal government has yet to remove cannabis from the list of scheduled substances, arguably the first step to righting the wrongs committed against the BIPOC community at the hands of the American government’s actions through the 1960s and even today as people are still being arrested for cannabis crimes being arrested for cannabis crimes.
Imagine walking through the streets of legal use (recreational and medicinal). At the same time, 50ft yards away, there are 10’s of 100’s across the city, state, and beyond who are still serving time for cannabis-related “crimes”, only for the world to benefit from the foundational blood, sweat, and tears from those being punished.
President Joe Biden called for a formal review of cannabis’ Schedule I classification and pardoned non-violent cannabis possession charges in October 2022, the most direct action ever taken by a U.S. President to reform cannabis laws. Still, it hasn’t changed business for the cannabis industry yet.
Today, several Black and Brown Americans leverage the legal cannabis industry to reclaim their power and change how BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) are perceived when associated with the cannabis plant. But, as it stands, roughly 80% of licensed cannabis business owners are White. Just 5.7% are Hispanic or Latino, and 4.3% are Black.
It’s a disproportionate truth, especially considering the brutal history of the BIPOC community’s association with cannabis under Anslinger’s tenure. Today, Black Americans are more than 3.5x more likely to get arrested for cannabis than White Americans, despite near-equal cannabis usage rates.
In some U.S. counties, Black Americans may be up to 50x more likely to get arrested for cannabis than White Americans, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). It’s estimated that out of the first 100 cannabis retail licenses in Los Angeles, only 11 were Black.
The launch of social equity programs in several U.S. state cannabis programs was developed to repair some of the damage done by the War on Drugs, first coined by President Richard Nixon in 1971, but is often used to describe Harry J. Anslinger’s time in office, too.
President Richard Nixon’s term fueled the fire started by Anslinger and Nixon’s Domestic Policy Chief, John Ehrlicheman, said of the former President’s position:
“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. 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,” he concluded, according to Baum.”
But most, if not all, of these social equity programs leave much to be desired and aren’t as transparent as they should be. California is supposed to have one of the country’s most robust social equity programs, but even its program is falling short.
In Oakland, California, 90% of social equity applicant respondents said lack of capital is a major problem plaguing their business, despite over $10 million being allocated to Oakland’s social equity program alone. Similar stories abound in nearly every state where social equity programs have been rolled out, like Colorado, Michigan, Illinois, and Massachusetts.
Diversifying Capital and Supporting BIPOC-Owned Cannabis Businesses Makes a Massive Impact
This has sparked plenty of questions from BIPOC communities and allies in cannabis, the most prevalent being: how can we fix this and create a more equitable cannabis industry? As mentioned before, definitive federal action is the first step.
There’s no accountability for state-led social equity programs. As a result, there’s little to no transparency about where the social equity funds are going, how they’re being spent, how they’re being received, and more. The information we do have often is only available because it was requested.
With federal involvement, there’s another level of oversight and stronger protocols to follow. Until the federal government makes a move, it’s up to the cannabis industry to continue applying pressure to state governments and hold them accountable for being transparent about the social equity programs and funds.
The problem also extends to private capital. In every industry, not just cannabis, White male entrepreneurs receive the most funding from venture capitalists compared to their BIPOC counterparts.
Venture-backed startups are 71.6% White, leaving little for Black and Brown communities. Fundraising runs the world of startups, but even more so for the cannabis space.
The lack of federal action means cannabis entrepreneurs can’t access traditional bank loans or sources of capital and must rely on private funding – which can be a nearly impossible task for the BIPOC community when 70%+ of the funding isn’t allocated for them. The cannabis space must continue having open and honest conversations with private equity firms about equalizing the playing field and diversifying cannabis investments among people of all backgrounds.
Fortunately, though it’s disproportionate to other demographics, Brown and Black-owned cbd companies exist and succeed in the United States. Josephine & Billie’s is a Black, woman-owned dispensary and speakeasy paying homage to Black performer Josephine Baker and Jazz singer Billie Holiday and incorporating a 1920s-1930s aesthetic. It was the first business Jay-Z’s cannabis private equity firm invested in. Wanda James is the first Black American to own a cannabis dispensary in the U.S. licensed cannabis industry.
Today, her Denver dispensary, Simply Pure, is thriving and one of the city’s highest-rated dispensaries. Primitiv Group is another Black-owned cannabis brand founded by former NFL players Calvin Johnson and Rob Sims, and FOHSE is proud to light the Primitiv Group cultivation facility. Seeking out and supporting BIPOC-owned businesses and black-owned cannabis brands as consumers or vendors is a concrete way to make a lasting impact on diversifying the cannabis space.
Partner with FOHSE
FOHSE is committed to helping create a more equitable and transparent cannabis industry, considering social equity status when working with new and existing clients. Reach out below if you’re interested in partnering with FOHSE to light your facility.