Civil rights and cannabis rights: Why was weed even illegal at all?

Tahir Johnson lives in Washington, D.C., where he works for the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA).

Photo By

He was my guest for Kannaboom Podcast 75, which we recorded last month, a few days after the inauguration of President Biden. Making small talk at the start of the interview, I asked Tahir if he saw the spectacular fireworks on inauguration night.

“So on the day of inauguration last week I actually, my family and I, we rented a cabin and we spent the week in the Poconos in Pennsylvania,” he said. “So we got out of the city. So I was just kind of, you know, hanging out in a log cabin in the cold and the snow last week, so I missed it.”

As the Larry King / Terry Gross kind of interviewer I aspire to be, I could / should have responded to this data point. But I returned to the fireworks, and how impressive they were. Then we moved on and talked about Tahir’s work at the NCIA, where he helps promote diversity and social equity in the cannabis business.

First, let’s stop denying things that are real

Thinking about it later, I wished I had asked Tahir why he chose to skip the pomp and ceremony of the inauguration and haul his family hundreds of miles away for a cold, snowy week in the woods.

I didn’t have to think too hard to arrive at this thought: Of course he took his family far out of town. He has young children — one has a cameo in the podcast — and we were just two weeks removed from a violent insurrection, right in his neighborhood. A menacing mob had erected a working gallows on the Capitol Mall and done their best to reinstall their chosen leader, an autocrat with let’s call it fascist leanings, as the leader of our country.

Tahir is a man of color. Given American history, and this inauguration as the final, climactic day of an election cycle gone way off the rails, taking off was the prudent thing. I’d have gotten my family in the car and driven a few hundred miles into the wilderness too.

We actually did have to evacuate once, when wildfires were raging through northern San Diego County. In both my situation and Tahir’s, it made sense to get out, but in my case It wasn’t in response to marauding fellow citizens. You don’t have to be woke or admit to your privilege to understand that we live in two different worlds: Tahir and millions of other Americans, because of the color of their skin, face deadly dangers some of us just don’t.

Racism is real, and it has big, far-reaching effects. Just like climate change and the results of the last election.

The war on drugs was a farce

I could go off on the denial running rampant on all three of these things — but this is about cannabis, and the denial of its value as a safe and effective medicine.

It does tie in though. Here’s a fact that’s not well-understood or acknowledged  enough: Racism was the cornerstone of cannabis prohibition in America. The forces that led our government to outlaw cannabis as part of the stupidly catastrophic war on drugs are the same dark forces that led Tahir to flee his home for a week.

Some background: Harry Anslinger was commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 until 1962. Over those decades he led a propaganda campaign that cast ‘marihuana’ as something used by Mexican immigrants, jazz musicians and black people — none of whom were, in Ansligner’s twisted mind, and Jeff Sessions’ words, “good people.”

Using the power of his position, Anslinger worked with the media to publish false stories about cannabis turning people into zombies and murderers. He wasn’t subtle about it, saying things like: “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”

Wow. A guy who espoused those beliefs could hold a powerful position in the federal government until 1962. Just… wow.

Anslinger was weirdly obsessed with Billie Holiday, and had her handcuffed on her deathbed. By the time he was done, the conventional wisdom, in the white middle class at least, was that cannabis was a dangerous stepping stone to heroin, an exceedingly dangerous substance, used only by criminals. Who usually happened to be people of color.

Then as now, it was about using lies and misdirection to divide us into white victims and non-white scapegoats.

From Anslinger to Nixon, monumental hypocrisy

By 1971, it wasn’t a far leap for Richard Nixon to extend that narrative and misuse the power of the presidency to further divide Americans. Despite scientific evidence to the contrary, Nixon made sure that cannabis was listed on Schedule 1 of the federal Controlled Substances Act, alongside heroin, as a drug with no medicinal value. And he did something maybe even more cynical.

“You want to know what this was really all about?” Nixon aide John Ehrlichman asked Don Baum, author of “Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure.”

“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 blacks, 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.”

There you have it. The original fake news. Cannabis has been used by humans for thousands of years, and there’s no recorded instance of it ever killing anyone. Real harm has been done though, through unjust persecutions, disproportionately against people of color, who were incarcerated by the hundreds of thousands — and then often found it much more difficult to find jobs and rent apartments. And it’s been used as a wedge to widen the racial divide. With no accountability for the perpetrators. It’s an American tragedy.

The legal cannabis industry: a chance for redemption?

It was scary to load my family into the car and evacuate the neighborhood when the flames were coming too close. I can only imagine the terror of having to flee because there’s a chance an angry mob of armed people may turn against you and your family. A mob that has bought decades of lies about cannabis, and skin color, and who’s to blame for an economy that has decimated the middle class. 

This is not OK. It’s sad and wrong and infuriating, and we have to change it.Tahir is among those working to undo some of the damage done by the big cannabis lie. At NCIA he works to promote diversity, inclusion and social equity in the cannabis industry — listen to the podcast to learn more.

I wish I had asked Tahir why he took his family out of D.C. that week, or another question that would have busted opened this entire conversation, because it’s a conversation we all need to have. We’ve been told that because we look different, we should fear each other; that if one tribe gains, another loses. We need to talk more, listen closely, ask better questions, seek to understand and move forward together. Because we want the same things: safety for our families and communities; opportunities to grow and thrive; safe and effective medicine.

Today’s emerging cannabis industry offers an opportunity to right some historic wrongs and to refute some of the lies that have divided us. Through investments and millions of new jobs and law enforcement reform, we have the chance to form a robust and healthy cannabis industry that works for all involved — with liberty and justice for all.

Thanks to Tahir, NCIA and many other individuals and organizations who are working toward this future, we’re finally taking steps in that direction.