Written by Don Fitz and Susan Armstrong and first published at Green Social Thought
An Attack on Black and Brown Cultures
Spanish-speaking people, who have lived in the US since it
stole half of Mexico’s land, have a tradition of smoking marijuana. Amid a growing fear of Mexican immigrants in
the early twentieth century, hysterical claims about the drug became
widespread, such as allegations that it caused a “lust for blood.” The term cannabis was largely replaced by the Anglicized marijuana, perhaps to suggest
the foreignness of the drug. Around this
time many states began passing laws to ban pot.
In “Why Is Marijuana Illegal in the US?” Amy Tikkanen wrote that in the 1930s, Harry J. Anslinger, head of the
Federal Bureau of Narcotics, turned the battle against marijuana into an
all-out war. He could have been
motivated less by safety concerns—the vast majority of scientists he surveyed
claimed that the drug was not dangerous—and more by a desire to promote his
newly created department. Anslinger
sought a federal ban on the drug, and initiated a high-profile campaign that
relied heavily on racism. 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
Furthermore, he noted, “Reefer makes darkies
think they’re as good as white men.”
Anslinger oversaw the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. Although that particular law was
declared unconstitutional in 1969, it was augmented by the Controlled
Substances Act the following year. That legislation classified marijuana—as
well as heroin and LSD, among others—as a Schedule I drug.
Racism was also evident in the enforcement of the law. African Americans in the early 21st century
were nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested on marijuana-related
charges—despite both groups having similar usage rates.
In her 2016 film, 13th Amendment, producer, Ava
Duvernay documented drug laws and policies which increased incarceration rates
of Black and brown people over the last six decades.
President Nixon’s “War on Crime” of the 1970s
targeted protests by the anti-war movement as well as liberation movements by
gays, women, and Blacks. “Crime” became
a code word for race. Nixon’s Adviser,
John Ehrlichman, admitted that the “War on Drugs” was all about throwing Black
people into jail to disrupt those communities.
These efforts were to gain southern voters.
In the 1980’s, President Reagan’s “War on Drugs” portrayed
drugs as an “inner city problem,” allowed for mandatory sentencing for crack
cocaine, and tripled the federal spending on law enforcement. The War on Drugs became a war against Black
and Latino communities, with huge chunks of Black and brown men disappearing
into prison for a “really long” time.
The exploding mass incarceration rates felt genocidal. This was again pandering to racist voters.
In his effort to appear “tough on crime” during
the 1990’s, President Bill Clinton pushed the $30 billion Federal Crime Bill
which expanded prison sentences, incentivized law enforcement to do things we
now consider abusive, and militarized local police forces. Increased incarceration rates due to the
Clinton administration included introduction of the terms “super predators,”
Mandatory Minimum Sentences, “Truth in Sentencing” (which eliminated parole),
and “three strikes and you’re out” laws whereby those convicted of three
felonies were mandated to prison for life.
Such a criminal justice system needs constant feeding of young men and
women of color.
Racism during Marijuana
Poverty plays a central role in mass incarceration
– people put in prison and jail are disproportionately poor. The criminal justice system punishes poverty,
beginning with the high price of money bail. The median felony bail bond amount
($10,000) is the equivalent of eight months’ income for the typical defendant.
Those with low incomes are more likely to face the harms of pretrial detention. Poverty is not only a predictor of
incarceration – it is also frequently the outcome, as a criminal record and
time spent in prison destroys wealth, creates
debt, and decimates job opportunities.
It’s no surprise that people of color — who face
much greater rates of poverty — are dramatically overrepresented in the
nation’s prisons and jails. These racial disparities are particularly stark for
Black Americans, who make up 38% of the incarcerated population despite
representing only 12% of US residents.
prosecutors, and judges continue to punish people harshly for nothing more than
drug possession. Drug offenses still account for the incarceration of almost
400,000 people, and drug convictions remain a defining feature of the federal prison system. Police still make over one
million drug possession arrests each year, many of which lead to prison
sentences. Drug arrests continue to give residents of over-policed
communities criminal records, hurting their employment
prospects and increasing the likelihood of longer sentences for any future
offenses. The enormous churn in and out
of correctional facilities is 600,000
persons per year. There are another
822,000 people on parole and a staggering 2.9 million people on probation – 79
million people have a criminal record; and 113 million adults have immediate family
members who have been to prison.
five incarcerated people is locked up for a drug offense. Four out of five people in
prison or jail are locked up for something other than a drug offense — either a
more serious offense or a less serious one. The terms “violent”
and “nonviolent” crime are so widely misused that they are generally
unhelpful in a policy context. People
typically use “violent” and “nonviolent” as substitutes for serious versus nonserious criminal
acts. That alone is a fallacy, but worse, these terms are also
used as coded (often racialized) language to label individuals as inherently dangerous versus non-dangerous.
Reinvents Marijuana Racism
The decriminalization which is sweeping across
the US carries with it the obvious facts that (a) pot is not and never has been
a dangerous drug, and (b) criminalizing drugs has never brought anything
positive. This suggests that those who have been victimized were done so
wrongfully and therefore should be compensated for the wrongs done to
them. However, victims have been
predominantly people of color and American racism reappears during the
decriminalization phase in the form of trivializing harms done and offering
restitution that barely scratch the surface of what is needed.
Prior to addressing the shortcomings for
wrongful damages for marijuana laws, the US should publicly apologize for the
wrongheaded and thoroughly racist “War on Drugs” and pledge to compensate those
who have suffered from it in ways that are comparable to cannabis-related
Victims should be compensated for time spent in
jail. Prisoners might receive
compensation for labor performed in prison; but it can be as low as $0.86 to $3.45 per day
for most common prison jobs. At least
five states pay nothing at all. Private companies using prison
labor are not the source of most prison jobs. Only about 5,000 people in
prison — fewer than 1% — are employed by private companies through the
federal PIECP (Prison Industry Enhancement
Certification Program), which requires them to pay at least minimum wage before
deductions. (A larger portion work for state-owned “correctional industries,”
which pay much less. But this still only
represents about 6% of people incarcerated in state prisons.)
cannot be a serious discussion of compensating victims if many continue to rot
in jail. They must be release
immediately, regardless of what state they are in. Many of those released have not had records
of their arrests, convictions and sentencing cleared (“expunged”). According to Equity and Transformation Chicago, there is a 5-8 year wait for expunging
records. Records must be expunged as
rapidly as would be done if it really affected people’s lives (because it
core component of repairing harm done to those imprisoned would be prioritizing
them (according to amount of jail time served) to receive licenses for growing,
processing, transporting and dispensing marijuana. Various states have taken baby steps in the
right direction. For example, Chicago’s Olive Harvey College is offering training in cannabis
studies to those with past marijuana arrests.
Participants receive “free tuition, a $1,000 monthly stipend, academic
support and help with child care, transportation and case management.” As of March, 2022 there were 47 studying for
jobs as growers, lab directors and lab or quality control technicians.
effort pointing forward is New York’s program to grant licenses for marijuana
storefronts for individual or family members who have been imprisoned for a
marijuana-related offense. An executive
for the program expects 100-200 licenses to go to such victims.
these model programs in perspective.
Nice as they are, 47 students receiving study grants in Chicago and
100-200 retail licenses in New York do not even make a dent in the over 867,000
who have been arrested.
While current programs are
infinitesimally small, barriers to legal victims are enormous. Missouri grants licenses only to those “having
legal marijuana experience” (such as handling legal medical cannabis) to apply
for licensing for growing, dispensing, and processing. Illinois denies licenses and loans to felons,
even though 1 in 3 Chicago adults have a criminal record. Illinois also prevents those with
cannabis-related convictions from entering the cannabis industry by its high
barriers for marijuana victims to receive licenses seem insurmountable. People and communities negatively
impacted by the War on Drugs have high incarceration rates and low average salaries due to limited
job opportunities by ex-felons. Therefore, they lack the financial resources
for high non-refundable application fees ($10,000 to $50,000) awarded in
lotteries to match the state-designated number of growers, dispensaries,
processors, and transporters. In Illinois, access to credit and small business
loans are difficult for persons with criminal records to obtain. Each dispensing organization applicant must
have at least $400,000 in liquid assets.
That is why people of color cannot participate as owners of legalized
marijuana businesses in Illinois.
Industrial Agriculture Poisons Marijuana
even if all these barriers were to be overcome, there would be serious health
issues throughout the marijuana industry, whether legal or illegal. If people of color receive priority in all
phases of the industry, then a new form of environmental racism will
emerge. People in that industry will
become part of the environmental destruction to
their communities while they experience damage to their own health from
An excellent review of concerns with
cultivation of cannabis by a team
working with Zhonghua Zheng finds it heavily associated with environmental and
health concerns whether it is grown outdoors
or indoors. Needing considerable
water, cannabis requires twice as much water as wheat, soybeans
and maize. Diverting water to irrigate cannabis crops
often results in dewatered streams affecting other vegetation. Water quality is also worsened (especially by illegal
growers) by use of herbicides, insecticides, rodenticides, fungucides and
Human health problems which can be linked to chronic
include memory and respiratory issues as well as birth defects. Other health
effects are weakened muscle functioning, cancer and liver damage. The organization Beyond
Pesticides documents serious threats due to two factors: (a) “Pesticide
residues in cannabis that has been dried and is inhaled have a direct pathway
into the bloodstream;” and, (2) up to “69.5% of pesticide residues can remain
in smoked marijuana.”
Perhaps the most overlooked source of pesticide
poisoning is due to the synthetic piperonyl butoxide (PBO), which is a
synergist, used to boost the effectiveness of active ingredients in
pesticides. PBO can itself damage
health due to neurotoxicity, cancer and liver problems.
Fertilizers and pesticides make their way into surface
water, groundwater and soil, where they threaten the food supply. The high demand for weed affects watersheds,
having damaging effects at least for endangered salmonid
fish species and amphibians
including the southern torrent salamander and coastal tailed frog.
Outdoor cannabis farms disturb fine-sediment adjacent to
streams, thereby threatening other rare and endangered species. Its cultivation can contribute to deforestation
and forest fragmentation. Fertilizers
used for cannabis hurt air
quality due to the release of nitrogen.
Excess nitrogen increases soil acidification and well as water
Growing cannabis indoors raises its own issues,
most notably health risks from exposure to mold and pesticides. Mold in damp
indoor environments is associated with wheeze, cough, respiratory
infections, and asthma
symptoms in sensitized persons.
Perhaps the most surprising problems with
indoor cultivation of cannabis is its effects on climate change via
electricity. This is due to its annual $6
billion energy costs in the US, making it responsible for at least 1% of
total electricity. Inevitably,
decriminalization will lead to increased use of energy.
The major sources of energy usage are lighting
and microclimate control. High-intensity
lighting alone accounts for 86% of electricity use for indoor
cannabis. Dehumidification systems
are used to create air exchanges, temperature, ventilation and humidity control
24 hours per day. Due to the complexity
of indoor requirements, growing one kilogram of processed marijuana can result
kilograms of CO2 emissions!
Environmental and health problems with
growing marijuana will intensify greatly if decriminalization allows control by
corporate agriculture. The so-called
“Green Revolution” emphasizes use of enormous monocultures which maximize
ecological destruction from extreme use of irrigation and fertilizers.
As of early 2022, at least 36 US states have
adopted some form of decrimalization of marijuana, adding to the explosion of
businesses in every phase of its production.
In 2018, Bloomberg reported “Corona
beer brewer Constellation Brands Inc. announced it will spend $3.8 billion
to increase its stake in Canopy Growth Corp., the Canadian marijuana producer
with a value that exceeds C$13 billion ($10 billion).”
has been eyeing the market for drinks containing CBD which eases pain without
getting the user high. Pepsi may have
jumped the gun on Coke. A New Jersey
hemp and marijuana producer, Hillview, has an agreement with Pepsi-Cola
Bottling Co. of New York to makes CBD-infused seltzers which would sell for $40
per eight-pack. The deal aims to cover
Long Island, Westchester and all five New York boroughs.
With industrial giants like Coke and Pepsi
jumping into the cannabis market, it is a sure bet that they will not be buying
marijuana from thousands of mom-and-pop growers. Look for big soft drink to seek contracts
with big ag.
The commercial growth of crops based on
monoculture (a single or very few crops grown) becomes a breeding ground for
pests, creating an artificial need for control via chemical poisons. A fundamental principle of organic
agriculture is that growing 10, 15 more more plant species together reduces any
need for chemicals. In the corporate ag
model, if the single species grown is invaded by pests, then the entire crop
can be lost. In the organic model the
farmer anticipates that 1, 2 or 3 may be hurt by pests, but the majority will
According to farmer Patrick
Bennett, “for a fraction of the cost of a single bottle of synthetic liquid
fertilizer, you can get the same, if not better yield, flavor, and cannabinoid
content in your crop at home by simply using organic farming practices.” Marijuana has been grown for centuries (or
millennia) without pesticides. Current organic growers have found five plant-based
insecticides that protect their crops well:
· Neem oil is “extracted from the seeds
and fruit of the tropical neem tree, [and] controls many insects, including
mites, and prevents fungal infections, like powdery mildew.”
controls “control over many insects, including mites, aphids, and thrips” but
does not provide fungal protection.
kills insects that attack cannabis plants, including thrips. Pyrethrins, however, the synthetic version of
pyrethrums, should not be used due to their environmental persistence.
Thurengensis (BT) is very
effective in controlling larval insects and fungus gnats.
Nematodes are microscopic organisms occurring naturally
in soil, keeping it healthy while controlling soil-born pests such as fungus
Techniques such as these have proven
effective. Mike Benziger told
interviewer Nate Seltenrich that he grows fruits,
vegetables and medicinal herbs along with cannabis. He includes multiple plants that attract
insects like ladybugs and lacewings that gobble up harmful mites and
aphids. Organic growers often rely on
mulching and crop rotation. Such methods
are especially critical for protecting workers growing the plants, neighboring
wildlife, farm owners, distributors and, of course, marijuana users.
As of 2015, Maine was prohibiting use of any
pesticides. Yet, its is important to remember that legislation can be weakened
or repealed by subsequent laws, making it critical to have enduring
guidelines. Such guidelines should include
practices like those in Washington DC and Maine which require producers to
demonstrate knowledge of organic growing methods.
Since federal law classifies marijuana as a
narcotic there are no federal guidelines for growing it. This makes it tempting to demand that it be
declassified and brought under the auspices of bodies like the Environmental
Protection Agency. This is a worthwhile
goal, but the problem is that federal and state bodies are controlled by
corporate powers seeking the weakest standards possible. Goals such as the following should be stated
to counter racism and have genuine environmental protection with real (not
fake) organic standards:
must begin with an apology which acknowledges that criminalization of marijuana
included an attack on those cultures using it; was a part of a greater attack
which used drugs as one of many weapons to destroy communities; and caused
suffering for an enormous number of individuals.
communities affected by criminalization of marijuana and the larger attack upon
them should decide what financial and cultural restitution they should receive.
harmed by marijuana criminalization should receive financial compensation for
any arrest, trial, incarceration and post-incarceration damages. Funds for growing, preparing and dispensing
legalized marijuana should be made in direct proportion to the harm that
individuals have suffered – those who have been harmed the most should receive
the greatest compensation. In
particular, the greater the harm an individual has suffered, the higher
priority that individual should have for receiving a license related to
growing must be a core component of protecting the health of marijuana workers,
producers and users. All who grow
marijuana must receive free education on how to do so without the use of
chemical poisons (“pesticides”). This
must include how to intersperse marijuana with other crops so that pests are
not as threatening as they are with monocultures. All who grow, process and disperse marijuana
must obtain certification that their product is free of chemical
contaminants. There should be no limitations
on the number of marijuana plants an individual may grow, as long as those
plants are grown with genuine organic principles.
Prior to decriminalization, health and
environmental damages of growing and using marijuana were more or less similar
for all ethnic and cultural groups. But
that will not continue to be the case if restitution for damages from
criminalization are put into place. If
those hurt most by harassment and incarceration for marijuana receive priority
for licenses to produce and distribute cannabis, they will receive the most
pesticide poisoning if organic methods are not required. The only way to avoid continued harm to those
previously victimized is to employ organic cultivation.
Abolition of exploitation of all agricultural
workers requires similar restrictions on chemical use when growing all herbs,
fruits and vegetables. Organic growing
of cannabis should become a model for transferring production via corporate
megafarms using mono cropping, chemicals, and exploited labor to organic
methods based on small farms, chemical-free growing for local communities and
good treatment for workers encouraged to form strong unions for collective
Don Fitz (email@example.com) is on the
Editorial Board of Green Social
Thought, where a version of this article originally
appeared. He was the 2016 candidate
of the Missouri Green Party for Governor. His articles on politics and the
environment have appeared in Monthly Review, Z Magazine, and Green Social
Thought, as well as several online publications. His book, Cuban Health
Care: The Ongoing Revolution, has been available since June 2020.
Susan Armstrong, PE, LEED-AP
(firstname.lastname@example.org) is a licensed Civil Engineer, whose
specialty is Health Safety and Environmental Engineering (HSE). Her life’s work is healthy sustainable
systems in communities, workplaces, and environment – through science,
engineering, policy, and activism.