The Racist History of Cannabis Prohibition

The debate surrounding cannabis decriminalisation in the UK is a precarious one. Panic around the associated health risks and the potential of users graduating to more severe substances has dominated the discussion for the past few decades. Quietly on the perimeter have stood various lobbyists and campaigns, who argue for the medical uses of cannabis and citing its benefits on various conditions, from chronic pain to Crohn’s disease.

Currently, recreational usage of weed is completely prohibited and its status as a drug has oscillated between a Class B and Class C drug. At the time of writing, weed is classified as a Class B drug in the UK, along with codeine and Ritalin among others. It is illegal to possess, grow or distribute. While the police can fine up to £90 on the spot for possession of weed, often carrying small amounts will result in a “cannabis warning” – a slap on the wrist in effect. The maximum penalty for possession is a five-year prison sentence and unlimited fine.

In the UK, the process of drug law enforcement reveals striking ethnic disparities, with people from BME groups overrepresented from initial point of contact through to sentencing. The enforcement of cannabis regulation in the UK and USA alike are pillars of institutional racism. The perception of cannabis users has historically been filtered through racism, and decriminalisation could constructively interrogate our drug enforcement processes.

Regulation of cannabis use historically began in countries colonised by Britain, and it was first banned domestically in 1928. This period was also one that saw the rise of the Rastafari movement in Jamaica, a group whose spiritual practice have traditionally included the use of cannabis.  Further north in the States, panic around cannabis emerged as a fringe issue, and was heavily associated with Black people and a “degenerate lifestyle”. The diagnoses of “cannabis induced psychosis” began to crop up in psychiatry, with disproportionately black men being diagnosed. In the eyes of the American legislation system, the fear was that the use of weed would slip beyond these racial boundaries and into the white public.

In the UK, cannabis remained a quiet debate in the public psyche post WWI.  During this period, the drug was largely associated with racially marginalised groups. After noticing a steep rise in cannabis seizures post WWII, a 1947 statutory report to the UN linked this rise to “the coloured seamen of the East End and clubs frequented by Negro theatrical performers”.

Interest into the effects of cannabis on the wider public did not begin to emerge until the 1960s. An emerging youth culture and feelings of political unrest reinforced the panic around weed. Despite the stereotypical association with Black people, in 1967 drug offending had caused the rate of white people prosecuted to be  almost triple that of other groups.

The 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act was arguably a legislative response to the drug panic. Here the famous Class A, B and C system to regulate substances came into effect, with legal penalties set for possession or intent to distribute certain drugs. This system in and of itself was not perfect, and far from scientific. The classifications of each drug did not necessarily reflect the potential harm a substance could cause, and notably, alcohol and tobacco were omitted. Cannabis itself was briefly reclassified as a Class C drug between 2004-2009, before it returned to its original Class B status.

Cannabis law enforcement has been a pillar of institutional racism in the UK and across the politically Western world. By examining the history of weed and its relationship to the legal system, one can easily decipher the inherently racist prejudices in the execution of such laws. The statistics surrounding length of sentences for those arrested for drug related charges are apt in their evidence about the imbalances between white offenders and those of a BME background. Therefore, an investigation into the legal history of cannabis is indeed defective without a complementary inquiry into how these laws directly and indirectly weigh heavier on the shoulders of people of colour in our society.

[Naomi Gessesse]


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