Critical Grass

The Politicization of Pot

The past month, not to mention pretty much all of 2020 thus far, has been one crazy ride that took everyone by surprise. It seems like years’ or decades’ worth of events happened within the span of just a few short weeks. The situation in the United States hit a breaking point after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Mass protests and demonstrations sprung up throughout the country (and many places all over the world) due to the continued police brutality on people of color and the protests seem to have somewhat morphed to include other issues such as demilitarization/defunding of the police, the demand for universal healthcare, a freeze on rent/evictions/mortgages, etc. There were also protests on the other end of the political spectrum for coronavirus-related issues, such as demands to open up the economy as many people felt oppressed for not being able to get a haircut in the middle of a pandemic.

            Through all the madness, one thing that does not to have been affected by the social unrest is cannabis sales. Cannabis has been deemed an essential business by most places with legal cannabis on the books and people certainly can use some in light of everything happening around the world. However, cannabis is very much a part of the broader social issues that are at the heart of the unrest/discontent. To say cannabis is not political is to deny the past 100 years of history. Cannabis became politicized when Harry J. Anslinger, the 1st Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics for over 30 years, decided he needed an excuse to go after Mexican migrants and African-American jazz musicians, you know, the two greatest threats to peace the world has ever seen. However, you can’t just start randomly harassing people on the street without consequence. Anslinger also needed to create the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a branch of the Treasury Department, to justify the use of state violence and oppression against a particular group of people. To gain the consent of tax-payers who were going to fund this oppression, Anslinger also requested the help of William Randolph Hearst, a wealthy racist who also happened to own chains of newspapers. Sound familiar? The gears of yellow journalism went into motion and the witch hunt on marijuana began. Soon after the public began hearing horror stories of Mexicans going on murderous rampages or black jazz musicians seducing innocent white women to convert them to Satanic/communist jazz music. Some of the choice racial epithets used by Anslinger can be found here.

By the time Anslinger retired in 1962, he had managed to shape the country’s tough stance on narcotics and also influenced the drug policies of other nations. For cannabis-using minorities, the damage had already been done and their use of cannabis had been not only officially criminalized but deeply stigmatized for decades to come, and the effects are still visible to this day. It is still used an excuse to violently oppress/harass people that those in power do not like in the name of the War On (Certain) Drugs, the budget for which is still astronomically high. Sadly, this is an issue that isn’t going away anytime soon.

It should be evident by now that cannabis is an intersectional topic that transcends politics. It’s played a focal role in race issues, medical issues, economic issues as well as environmental issues. To say cannabis is apolitical is to be oblivious to reality. It is not just a plant, it is someone’s medicine, it is someone’s clothing, it is a part of someone’s housing, it is someone’s food, it is someone’s life-saving cancer treatment. It is a significant part of the web of life and has influenced so many aspects of our culture and everyday lives, whether we like it or not. Even if you don’t see yourself as a political person, you are pulled into politics if you do business at a dispensary, buy some homegrown from a dealer or call a lawyer if you get arrested for possession. The idea is not necessarily to take cannabis out of politics and hope that cannabis just gets treated like tomatoes. That is simply not going to happen. Rather, politics should be used to bring cannabis justice to the forefront, as cannabis justice is also racial justice, medical justice, social justice as well as economic justice. Pot has been political for a very long time, it’s high time to focus on the justice side of the issue now.