Remember those commercials from back in the day, the ones with the frying pan, the egg cracked into it, and the ominous, “This is drugs. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?" Well, turns out (brace yourselves), that this was propaganda, and some pretty disturbing and destructive propaganda at that.
The War on Drugs (WOD) was never really about drug prevention, and Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign did nothing to deter drug use. At best, the Reagan's were well intentioned, but certainly naive and clearly misguided. Many, however, believe their motives were more sinister, and they were conscious of their racist policies. Regardless, their failed policies not only led to increased drug use, but wasted tremendous resources, took lives on both sides of the law and, worst of all, targeted, incarcerated and decimated the lives of people of color and the communities in which they lived.
Whether or not the Reagan’s were aware of their biased and bigoted policies, the architects of the War on Drugs most certainly were. The hate began in the 1930’s with the Grand Daddy (or should we say Grand Wizard) of the WOD— Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department's Federal Bureau of Narcotics.
From the outset, Anslinger had it out for communities of color. Cannabis was simply a pretext to vilify and persecute minorities. Sufficed to say, this was a disturbed man with an even more disturbing agenda. In his words:
“Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men. There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., 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” (Legalizing Marijuana : Drug Policy Reform and Prohibition Politics (2004) by Rudolph Joseph Gerber, p. 9).
The architect of the War on Drugs was disturbed, disgusting and maybe not high on cannabis, but certainly high on hate!
Anslinger proceeded to set in motion a love affair with targeting communities of color, persecuting black people and vilifying cannabis as the Devil's Weed. Anslinger, however, was not the last to perpetuate the racism and hate. There to run anchor in the racist relay was good old Dick Nixon, who in 1971 formally named this campaign and took it to new lows. In the words of his policy advisor, John Ehrlichman:
“You want to know what this (War on Drugs) was really all about? 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” (Harper’s Magazine, May 7, 2019).
Nixon was just carrying on a long history of using drugs as a pretext to spew hatred, persecute and incarcerate people of color.
Recently, I attended the The 2nd Annual Cannabis Equity Summit & Expo in Oakland, CA. Although the devastation of the WOD may be theoretical to many reading this blog, I can assure you it is anything but theoretical to the folks I met with. Those people exist across the country, in Oakland as much as LA, Boston, New York, New Jersey and almost every other cannabis market ONE Cannabis is setting up operations. Time and again, I have met with real people, heard real stories of persecution and devastation due to the WOD. At this conference, person after person, victim after victim, shared their personal dramas and their individual, family or communal traumas directly related to the WOD.
And yet, although the war is not over, these individuals and their communities have begun to turn the page to a new chapter as the legalized cannabis market emerges. Through both the rise of this industry in general, and the birth of cannabis social equity in particular, there is a renewed sense of hope, purpose and revolution brewing in these communities. To so many of these social equity applicants, business owners and advocates, this isn't simply a business opportunity. It isn't just about cannabis. This is about redeeming their ancestors. This is about repairing their families. This is about restoring their communities. This is about restorative justice. To outsiders it may appear to be about weed, but to the social equity warriors I now call sisters and brothers in arms, this is about redemption, reparation and restoration. And yes, it's also a screw you to Ron, Dick and Harry and the other thugs behind this so called War on Drugs.
Until then, Make Bud, Not War, and let’s put an end to these cannabis injustices once and for all.