As we reflect on Black History Month, we can’t help but consider the countless people of color who have been disenfranchised by the War on Drugs in the United States starting in 1970 and continuing to today. The War on Drugs is such a significant part of Black history in America. Cannabis control continues to be a lever of oppression for poor and minority communities – creating major barriers to employment, as well as difficulties in education and housing opportunities in general. There no question that mass incarceration on drug-related offenses (fueled by the War on Drugs) has been detrimental, and our communities are still recovering.
While we applaud the efforts of many state and local legislatures to include social equity and social justice funding provisions as part of their cannabis legislation, this is an area that needs ongoing investment and priority.
It’s important to understand all the facts surrounding how we arrived to this point.
The Controlled Substances Act of 1970
The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 is the flagship legislation controlling cannabis at a federal level. Leading up to its passage, Henry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and others submitted testimony to Congress regarding the evils of marijuana use, claiming that it incited violent and insane behavior. Although Anslinger was previously on record having stated that cannabis use was no big concern, once he took over the FBN in 1930, he realized that the agency couldn’t stay afloat with just heroin and cocaine. Anslinger played a major role in the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, and as well as the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, passed under the Nixon Administration. Anslinger also used racially divisive tactics to turn public opinion against marijuana.
The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 outlines five “schedules” used to classify drugs based on their medical application and potential for abuse. Schedule 1 drugs are considered the most dangerous, as they pose a very high risk for addiction with little evidence of medical benefits. Marijuana, LSD, heroin, MDMA (ecstasy) and other drugs are included on the list of Schedule 1 drugs. The substances considered least likely to be addictive, such as cough medications with small amounts of codeine, fall into the Schedule 5 category.
In the mid 1990s, President Nixon’s domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman, provided more insight into this legislation, stating that the Nixon campaign had two enemies: “the antiwar left and black people.” These comments cast a cloud on Nixon’s true motivations.
Ehrlichman was quoted as 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.”6
The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986
The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, passed under the Reagan Administration, was later heavily criticized as having racist ramifications because it allocated longer prison sentences for offenses involving the same amount of crack cocaine (used more often by black Americans) as powder cocaine (used more often by white Americans). Five grams of crack triggered an automatic five-year sentence, while it took 500 grams of powder cocaine to merit the same sentence.
Critics also pointed to data showing that people of color were targeted and arrested on suspicion of drug use at higher rates than whites. Overall, the policies led to a rapid rise in incarcerations for nonviolent drug offenses, from 50,000 in 1980 to 400,000 in 1997. In 2014, nearly half of the 186,000 people serving time in federal prisons in the United States had been incarcerated on drug-related charges, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Another area of concern with federal criminalization of marijuana is the impact to legitimate banking. Many people suggest this is a new War on Drugs of sorts. Although states have passed legislation permitting the use of cannabis for both medical and recreational purposes, people operating in the cannabis industry are not able to secure banking accounts or loans from any federally insured bank.
The net result is that cannabis businesses are still operating largely in cash-based environments, also unable to process credit card transactions. Access to capital for starting or expanding a business is also an issue, disproportionately affecting low income people and people of color, and those who were negatively impacted by drug arrests. This issue is a driving force behind many local and statewide public policy initiatives to help promote social equity in the cannabis industry.
Although public support for the War on Drugs has decreased over the years, and many states have passed progressive drug laws easing restrictions, federal laws are still in effect that contribute to hundreds of thousands of people being arrested and convicted every year, many for possession-related offenses only. Again, these arrests and incarcerations disproportionally impact people of color and have significant consequences. Social equity programs help address some of these concerns, but more work needs to be done. We will not be able to fully right this situation until full marijuana decriminalization occurs at a federal level.
 See statements by H. J. Anslinger, Commissioner of Narcotics, Bureau of Narcotics, Department of the Treasury and Dr. James C. Munch, before the U.S. Congress, House Committee on Ways and Means, Taxation of Marihuana, 75th Cong., 1st sess., April 27-30, May 4, 1937, HRG-1837-WAM-0002.