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Colonialism, class and crime: the racist roots of cannabis prohibition

Today Black people are still disproportionately targeted by cannabis laws, but how did these policies evolve?



Cannabis prohibitionist propaganda was used as a tool to criminalise Black communities and demonise Mexican immigrants throughout the 1900s. Source: Wikipedia

Cannabis laws in the UK and US have a long, complex past. But no matter where you look, race is at the heart of the cannabis prohibition conversation. 

The history of cannabis prohibition is a history of racism, classism and control. In the US, cannabis prohibitionist propaganda was used as a tool to criminalise Black communities and demonise Mexican immigrants throughout the 1900s (and, arguably, to this day). 

In the UK, cannabis prohibition evolved slightly differently. As the power of the British Empire dwindled throughout the 19th century, a new set of beliefs instilled fear amongst the colonial elites: that cannabis causes madness — and hence, crime — and that the ‘ganja smoking’ labour classes of former colonies or the ‘cannabis peddling Negros’ of the 1950s would spread this madness and destroy polite society as we know it. 

Cannabis in colonised India

Whether for fibre, food, medicine, religious practice, or relaxation, cannabis has been part of human culture for more than 10,000 years. Cannabis cultivation likely originated in either central or Southeast Asia and its seeds spread across Eurasia through trade, migration and war. Cannabis could have been farmed in the UK as early as the Bronze age, and for centuries, Hemp was one of the Crown’s most important crops. 

Cannabis prohibition in the UK, like in the US, was born out of false beliefs about its abilities to turn ‘normal’ people into depraved lunatics who were out to steal your wealth (and your women), and which associated it with the ‘others’ of society — essentially those who were on the outside of the white ruling class. 

While medicinal cannabis was somewhat popular in Victorian times (with Queen Victoria herself suspected to use cannabis to treat menstrual cramps), its acceptance in high society began to wane in the late 19th century as reports from colonised India described insane asylums filled with patients afflicted by cannabis-induced insanity. 

In colonised India, attitudes around cannabis consumption — as well as its cultural significance in the region — were as varied as the geography itself. Both Muslims and Hindus used cannabis as part of religious practice, and it was observed that elites in urban areas enjoyed consuming cannabis just as much as the workers and poor of the lower castes.

As James Mills points out in his examination of cannabis and colonialism in India: “The picture from the middle of the 19th century that emerged from across India was of a population that enjoyed its intoxicants. These were resorted to for the pleasure of stimulation or for the relief of torpor. They were taken as aphrodisiacs by some and to enable a hard afternoon’s work by others. The various classes and castes of the Indian population constituted the largest market in the world for cannabis products.” 

Image Source: Semantic Scholar


The beginning of false beliefs: cannabis, madness and India’s insane asylums

Around the mid 1900s, colonial-run insane asylums in India, basically prisons for anyone deemed dangerous or disruptive to society, began to keep detailed records which started to paint an alarming picture: according to the statistics, the number one cause of madness amongst patients was cannabis. 

These so-called ‘hard’ statistics claiming cannabis caused widespread mental illness worried the Government of India who, after its own enquiry, deemed the claim to be true: “There can be no doubt that its habitual use does tend to produce insanity.” 

Based solely on the statistics provided by the colonialist-run asylums, India’s Government proceeded to ban the cultivation and consumption of cannabis in Burma and called for other areas of British India to do the same. Concerns around the ill-effects of cannabis began to grow across the Empire. 

But the evidence behind these claims was not based in scientific fact, and this is perhaps one of the first instances of police enabling — and enforcing — false ideas around cannabis. 

Two decades after the initial inquiry, members of the India Hemp Drugs Commision (IHDC) conducted their own investigation and found that most records linking cannabis to madness were not provided by doctors or any person who would understand mental illness, but by: “the guesses of police officers as to the history and habits of a friendless wanderer; and in other cases, where a local inquiry is possible, it is generally made by a subordinate police officer […]. It would be absurd to accept without great distrust the statements, especially as to the cause of insanity, compiled by such an agency as has been described.”

While the IHDC concluded that cannabis was not harmful and could actually be beneficial for a number of reasons, a few members of the commission still objected to the findings. One in particular called for prohibiting ‘charas and ganja’ consumption in the long term, and wished to create a register of cannabis users to act as a surveillance system designed to monitor people they deemed as ‘bad characters, low class people and beggars’.

Despite the commission’s recommendations to regulate and tax cannabis, the damage had already been done, and fear of cannabis’ impacts on mental illness, and on ‘polite’ society in general, solidified across the colonies. This complex web of prejudice, policing and cannabis would inform UK drug laws for decades to come. 

Source: Wikipedia

The rise of racist cannabis policy in the US and UK

While cannabis had been used as medicine in the US for some time, and hemp had been a prized crop in the US since before the American Revolution, California was the first US state to outlaw cannabis in 1913. 

“The move served as a pretext for harassing Mexicans,” says Martin A. Lee in his book ‘Smoke Signals’. 

“The target of prohibition was not the drug so much, but those who were associated with its use. Typically in the United States, drug statutes have been aimed — or selectively enforced —against a feared or disparaged group within society.” 

As one Texas senator said during this time: “All Mexicans are crazy and this stuff [marijuana] makes them crazy.” 

Cannabis was then used as an excuse to break up labour unions and demonise migrant workers for decades.

The father of cannabis fear-mongering in the US was Harry J Anslinger, who served as the Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) for more than 30 years and was a vocal proponent of alcohol prohibition. 

Throughout the 1930s Anslinger went on a xenophobic and racist warpath against cannabis and what he viewed as the ultimate destruction of the American way of life. He even popularised the term ‘marijuana’ to emphasise a foreign connection to the new ‘devil weed’ and distance the association with medicinal cannabis. Around the same time, a slew of anti-cannabis propaganda, including the infamous Reefer Madness film, would depict cannabis as a deadly perversion.

As Lee points out in his book: “Anslinger depicted marijuana as a sinister substance that made Mexican and African American men lust after white women. One of the worst things about marijuana, according to the FBN, was that it promoted sexual contact across colour lines.” 

Anslinger himself once stated: “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.”

Anslinger’s outcries — as well as newspaper baron William Hearst’s constant yellow journalism linking marijuana with migrants and Black communities — heavily informed the passing of the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937. 

The purpose of the act, according to Lee, was to control behaviour, rather than raising any revenue. Cannabis wouldn’t become officially illegal at the federal level until 1970. 

By 1937, cannabis had already been outlawed in the UK. The prohibitionists of the early 20th century believed cannabis should be banned alongside all ‘dangerous’ drugs including opium, cocaine, and others. Cannabis was being blamed for various uprisings in the colonies, and many Brits clung to the (false) findings from the India insane asylum statistics. 

At the 1925 Opium Convention at Geneva, Egypt and South Africa — which either were or had been part of the British Empire — as well as Turkey, applied pressure to include cannabis in the meeting conversation. 

Egypt had made cannabis possession a capital offence in 1868, linking it to an epidemic of ‘chronic hashishim’, where labouring classes were believed to be most at risk of cannabis-induced madness and immortality. 

The Convention ended up including cannabis in the new international drug control system and, as a result, Britain passed the 1929 Dangerous Drug Act making cannabis illegal. 

Criminalising Black communities: cannabis, counterculture and present day policy

In the early to mid 1900s, former members of the British Empire began to migrate to the UK from Commonwealth countries where cannabis might have been part of the culture, and its use became associated with foreigners and people of colour, much like in the US. At the UK’s infamous first cannabis bust in 1950, police were reportedly surprised that most of the people arrested were white. 

Around the same time, the ‘Black men corrupting white women’ rhetoric was being used once again to demonise cannabis and the Black community, this time by the British tabloids

Almost any article talking about cannabis in the 50s portrayed young girls or women as helpless victims to the ‘bebop’ clubs and ‘negro peddlers’ of cannabis. One paper wrote that: “teen-aged girls are falling victims[sic] to marijuana cigarettes, given them[sic] by coloured seamen.” 

A piece in the Sunday Graphic, claimed: “The victims are teenage British girls, and to a lesser extent teenage youths…The racketeers are 90% coloured men…I share the fear of the detectives now on the job that there is the greatest danger of the reefer craze becoming the greatest social menace this country has known.” 

This constant depiction of the Black weed-smoking foreigner out to corrupt young women likely helped shape anti-immigration sentiments that still exist today. 

As the counterculture movement of the 60s and 70s blossomed and cannabis was being openly used by world-famous artists like The Beatles, young people began to fight back against the antiquated ideas of their parents and embraced a more tolerant view of cannabis. 

But this tolerance did not extend to the systems that were using drug laws, specifically cannabis, to target and oppress Black communities. Whether it was Nixon’s ‘War on Drugs’ that started in the 70s, or the ‘stop and search’ and ‘three strikes rule’ policies (UK and US respectively) that were formalised in the early 90s, all cannabis-related laws in the UK and US (and likely other countries) disproportionately impact people of colour. 

Take the latest statistics from the UK’s ‘stop and search’ policy. Despite only making up around 4% of the UK population, there were 52.6 stop and searches for every 1,000 Black people compared to just 7.5 for every 1,000 white people. That means Black people were seven times more likely to be stopped than white people. 

One 2018 report looking at race, drugs and law enforcement in England and Wales highlights some harrowing numbers: 

  • Black people are arrested for a drug offence at six times the rate of white people, and Asian people are arrested at almost twice the rate of the white.
  • Black people are more likely to receive a harsher police response for possession of drugs . In 2009/10 78% of Black people caught in possession of cocaine by the Metropolitan Police were charged for this offence and only 22% received cautions. In comparison 44% of white people were charged for the same offence and 56% received cautions.
  • Black people caught in possession of cannabis by the Metropolitan Police are less likely to receive a cannabis warning than white people, and are charged at five times the rate of whites.
  • Prosecutions for drug possession are at an all-time high and this is primarily being driven by cannabis possession. In 2010, the Crown Prosecution Service brought more prosecutions for possession of drugs than in any other year since the introduction of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 – 43,406 people were found guilty of drug possession. More than half of these prosecutions were for cannabis.
  • Black people are subject to court proceedings for drug possession offences at 4.5 times the rate of whites, are found guilty of this offence at 4.5 times the rate, and are subject to immediate custody at five times the rate of white people.  
  • Once they have been taken to court Black people are less likely to be given a suspended prison sentence for drug offences than white people.

Even though cannabis is now legal in more than 35 states — either recreationally and/or medicinally — the stats paint a similar picture. 

As the Legal Defence Fund puts it: Despite using cannabis at a slightly lower rate than their white counterparts, Black people are roughly four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis. In 2018, 89% of the more than 2,000 offenders who were federally sentenced on cannabis charges were people of colour — and 43% of all drug arrests made were cannabis arrests. 

“Today, many Black Americans continue to sit in jails under mandatory life sentences, while the legal pot industry (run primarily by white men) is projected to bring in $45 billion in 2024.”

READ MORE: “As a black medical cannabis patient, the sense of unfairness hurts deeply”

While US president Biden took a promising step forward in 2022 when he pardoned all federal offences of simple cannabis possession, the hard truth is that most cannabis ‘criminals’ are convicted under state law. 

It’s evident that, even with cannabis legalisation, the racist beginnings of cannabis prohibition continue to inform modern cannabis policy, as well as who benefits from the budding global cannabis market. 

Any consideration of cannabis liberation needs to address historical harms against communities of colour, while also unravelling the pervasive racist policing structures still very much present across society.

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Nellie is an award-winning writer, editor and content creator specialising in sustainable development, climate justice, oceans, cities, food and cannabis (to name a few). She is a passionate systems thinker and loves bringing people's stories to life through words, data, imagery, and other creative formats. Nellie has lived and worked in NYC, Los Angeles, Rhode Island, and London in a range of leadership roles across media, policy and business. She currently lives in Worthing, the "hackney-on-sea" of the south coast, where she serves as Communications Chair for the local Green Party.


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