Across the planet, people are gathering in massive numbers to voice their outrage at police brutality. Over the past six days, uprisings in cities like Seattle, Louisville, and Chicago have amplified a growing call to end the unjustifiable murder of innocent black bodies by law enforcement. Solidarity marches and protests from Paris to Auckland to Montreal signify that this issue is also not limited to any borders on a map.
The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota at the hands of four police officers may have been the flashpoint for this movement, but the rage and anguish being expressed by countless black and brown Americans right now is 400+ years in the making.
Of the infinite ways in which racial oppression has been allowed to continue, the narrative of cannabis in the United States is one deeply intertwined with the systems put in place to ensure inequality will prosper. In an op-ed published by Marijuana Moment, NORML’s executive director, Erik Altieri, lays out the guts of the issue.
“Will legalizing marijuana reform alone solve the problem of racial injustice? No,” he writes. “Will ending marijuana prohibition be a small step toward the greater goal of promoting justice? Without a doubt, yes.”
To understand the connection between cannabis law and systemic racism, we can start with the name Henry Anslinger. As the Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (a precursor to the DEA), Anslinger is unsentimentally regarded as an architect of what we now refer to as the War on Drugs. Anslinger was a noted racist, once writing in an article his belief that “reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”
Anslinger would codify his hateful rhetoric into law with the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act. This cycle would play out again under the Nixon Administration. When President Nixon declared marijuana to be “public enemy #1” in 1970, it was merely a convenient cover to fell black radicals and those protesting the Vietnam war in one fell swoop.
Former Nixon advisor John Ehrlichman admitted as much decades later. His quote underscores the argument in favor of cannabis legalization by revealing that it wasn’t the plant they were after at all — it was suppression of black voices and the anti-war movement.
“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.”
By the late 1980s, draconian penalties for drug offenses established the framework for the mass incarceration of black and brown Americans today. As the Drug Policy Alliance notes in a summary of this timeframe, only 2-6% of the population felt that drug abuse was the biggest problem in the U.S. in 1985. By 1989, that figure had snowballed to 64%. Every step of the way, cannabis became an easier and easier gateway — not to drug addiction, but to arrest for minorities.
Now, even as California passes the $1 billion mark in recreational sales, marijuana continues to be employed as a pretext for arrest, harassment, and even murder. We need look no further than Minnesota, the epicenter of today’s George Floyd protests, for a recent example of this tactic. Fellow Minnesotan Philando Castile was killed, according to one of the officers responsible, because he worried Castile was high on marijuana and thus might act erractically.
“I thought, ‘I was gonna die,’” Officer Jeronimo Yanez told investigators in 2017. “And I thought if he’s, if he has the, the guts and the audacity to smoke marijuana in front of the five year old girl and risk her lungs and risk her life by giving her secondhand smoke and the front seat passenger doing the same thing then what, what care does he give about me. And, I let off the rounds and then after the rounds were off, the little girls was screaming.”
This is how it works.
Cannabis validates violence in the minds of law enforcement. This is to say nothing of police and media alike using the specter of drugs as a possible means of justifying murder as well. It happens constantly, including with George Floyd, where an initial autopsy suggested that “potential intoxicants” “probably contributed” to his death. That autopsy, completed by Hennepin County Medical Examiner, was later refuted by an independent examination made at the request of Floyd’s family.
The point isn’t that legalized cannabis will fix everything. However, it can remove a very popular page from police officers’ playbooks. If they can’t blame their actions on possession or consumption of a plant anymore, they’ll have to come up with another answer for why they continually beat, brutalize, and disregard black lives.