Black History Month 2020 – Cannabis

Black History and Cannabis

Where did cannabis come from?


The archaeological records indicate that cannabis was used as far back as 12,000 years ago in Asia. Many fascinating clues come from Kurgan burials in Siberia, circa 3,000 BCE.  Peoples like the Scythians and Sarmations used hemp seeds for ritualistic purposes, to induce visions, and in purification ceremonies. They had many habits in common with Native Americans such as the use of the sweat lodge, scalp taking, and shamanism.

The Chinese began using cannabis for medicinal purposes around five thousand years ago. 

Scythians, Vikings, Arab traders, and various human migrations were responsible for the spread of cannabis globally.


Swahili and Arab traders contributed to the spread of cannabis throughout the African continent.

The New World

Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors and planters founded hemp farms in the western hemisphere from which a number of necessary items, such as rope, were made.

However, African slaves were already familiar with the psychoactive properties of cannabis and the municipal council in Rio de Janeiro banned the use of cannabis in an attempt to assert control and dominance over slaves as early as 1830.

This year we’re going to talk a bit about cannabis and its influence on black musicians. 

Hendrix was one of the idols of my generation, the Baby Boomers. A great innovator on the guitar, he is perhaps best remembered for his use of psychoactive drugs such as LSD. However, he wrote a tribute to one of the more popular strains of the day, Purple Haze. Later, Hendrix claimed the lyrics had nothing to do with weed. Click to read about Jimi Hendrix and his composition, Purple Haze, and decide for yourself whether the official story is true or not. 

Purple Haze

Reefer Madness

Cannabis was legal in the United States until the 1930’s, though it never really caught on with white populations until the Beatniks of the 1950’s. 

So what happened? 

The answer seems to lie in racism and greed. Before the 1950’s Mexicans and black people were primary users of marijuana. Two men lead the assault on banning cannabis, despite the fact that many scientists considered the drug harmless. 

One was Harry Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. In an attempt to grow his department after Prohibition failed, he launched an all out war on cannabis. From the Encyclopedia Britannica:

 ‘Anslinger claimed that the majority of pot smokers were minorities, including African Americans, and that marijuana had a negative effect on these “degenerate races,” such as inducing violence or causing insanity. Furthermore, he noted, “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.” Perhaps even more worrisome to Anslinger was pot’s supposed threat to white women’s virtue. He believed that smoking pot would result in their having sex with black men.’


Anslinger was aided by the yellow journalism tactics of William Randolph Hearst who published scare mongering stories about pot. Hearst’s primary motivation seemed to stem from the fact that his paper producing industries were being replaced by hemp. Additionally, Dupont’s nylon producing endeavours were also being threatened by hemp. Although hemp won a reprieve during WWII, it was soon lumped in with psychoactive marijuana strains and banned. 

Marijuana then became, through various propaganda channels, the ‘destroyer of youth’ and a ‘gateway drug.’

War on Drugs


In 1971, Nixon launched the war on drugs. What was the real reason for Nixon’s sudden concern? John Ehrlichman gave a interview in Harper’s magazine in 1994, in which he stated:

‘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.’


Reagan’s terms in office saw an expansion in prosecuting offenders. Policy became harsh on cannabis possession, terms of incarceration were toughened up, and asset forfeiture became legal. 

Did incarceration of minority men coincide with the rise of globalism and the offshoring manufacturing jobs? Did a generation of minority men need to be taken off the streets instead of being retrained for jobs? Who knows. Sometimes conspiracy theories stand as facts when you follow the money. 


Today’s focus is on the question, how did cannabis use contribute to the creation of the greatest musical style of the 20th century -Jazz. 

Storyville, the red light district in New Orleans, was populated by black musicians who worked as entertainers. There under the relaxing influence of marijuana, they began to experiment with rhythm, syncopation, and improvisation. From Merry Jane:

‘Jazz music is known for its free-form improvisational style and loose comradery among the players who encourage one another to stretch and experiment. Marijuana contributed psychologically by its effect of shifting the perception of time and also by the warm, social, conviviality it encourages compared to the harshness so often brought out by alcohol.’


Louis Armstrong was born in Storyville at the turn of the century and was a lifelong pot smoker. Armstrong famously said: “It makes you feel good, man. It relaxes you, makes you forget all the bad things that happen to a Negro. It makes you feel wanted, and when you are with another tea smoker it makes you feel a special sense of kinship.’

Read more about Louis Armstrong

Blowing gage and so much more

Of course, Harry Anslinger made it his mission to harass and destroy brilliant black artists. Read more about his persecution of Billie Holiday:

 The Hunting of Lady Day


Rasta, Mon

Ganja is a Sanskrit word for cannabis. Jamaican musicians like Bob Marley practiced the Rastafarian religion. True practitioners use ganja for its meditative and mystical properties. 

After the abolition of slavery on the international market in 1807, British colonialists imported laborers from India who brought ganja to the West Indies with them. White authorities banned its use. However, the use of a prohibited substance became a symbol of resistance to  white authority among Jamaicans. 

Marley did not use cannabis recreationally. He saw it as fundamentally a part of his religious practice.

Jamaican artists have been at the forefront of the movement to legalize marijuana. 

Jamaica has understood the economic potential of the weed industry and has legalized medical use while decriminalizing recreational use. 

White people

So how did marijuana become the drug of choice for white folks? The answer lies with the Beat poets and writers. Though Beat implied someone who was beaten down, Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsburg gave the word a spiritual dimension -beatitude. 

Beatniks were all about bebop, pot, bongos, eastern spirituality, black turtle necks, and hitch hiking. 

They were anti-materialistic and laid the groundwork for the hippies. In terms of fashion, they copied the look of Dizzy Gillespie and his unique brand of cool, beret included. They also appropriated black slang, such as: cool, cat, square and dig. 

Dizzy and Reefer

Howl by Allen Ginsburg



The 60’s

The Beats launched the counterculture which ushered in a social revolution in lifestyles that affected everything from education to gay and women’s rights, to clothing and music. Cannabis and free love became  symbols of that counterculture on the West Coast and, having great  appeal to young people, spread globally. 


During the divisive Vietnam war, cannabis use became prevalent among American soldiers, since it grew wild incountry. Many soldiers said it helped them mellow out and detach from the horrors of war. 

Fun fact: the term shotgun originated during the war as the herb was packed into a bowl the shotgun chamber and servicemen took turns toking on the barrel. 

Cannabis use in Vietnam was only topped by the other drug of choice, alcohol.

Summer of Love

During the summer of 1967, hippies descended on San Francisco.’s Haight – Ashbury neighborhood. It was then that Timothy Leary coined his famous mantra – tune in, turn on, and drop out.

Psychedelics such as LSD and psilocybin (mushrooms) along with marijuana were the drugs of choice. The counterculture continued into the 1970’s and pot use, though illegal never went away. 




Listen to Monk, another great fan of weed

Targeting the Black Community

White people have been smoking weed since the 1960’s, so why have black people been targeted disproportionately by law enforcement? The ACLU states:

‘Between 2001 and 2010, there were over 8 million pot arrests in the U.S. That’s one bust every 37 seconds and hundreds of thousands ensnared in the criminal justice system.

Enforcing marijuana laws costs us about $3.6 billion a year, yet the War on Marijuana has failed to diminish the use or availability of marijuana.

 Marijuana use is roughly equal among Blacks and whites, yet Blacks are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.’


We can only conclude that it is a form of racial control similar to Jim Crow laws. Black and Latino people have been unfairly targeted, discriminated against, incarcerated, and saddled with criminal records. 

What Now?

Illinois is working on the expungement  of criminal records but it won’t be automatic unless you were arrested (but not convicted) of carrying less than 30 grams of cannabis. For others, the process is more involved. 

Expungement in Illinois


Cannabis has been used to stimulate creativity, expand spirituality, promote relaxation and healing for thousands of years. Black and Latino communities have been unfairly targeted for cannabis use for a number of social and political reasons. However, how the new cannabis laws affect the black and Latino community remains to be seen. The industry is young and open to entrepreneurs, but only to those who can raise the capital for licensing and related business ventures. Reparations and financial assistance will be given to minority communities to fund cannabis ventures but will it be enough? To date, cannabizes are primarily in the hands of whites.  


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