What “Black-ish” Got Right About the Racial Stigma Surrounding Cannabis

(Richard Cartwright via Getty Images)

The ABC sitcom “Black-ish” is known for its insight into fraught sociopolitical issues. Following an upper-middle-class Black family in Los Angeles, the show takes on difficult subjects in nearly every episode, challenging racial stigmas and exposing hypocrisy with humor. “High Water Mark” – the 12th episode of season 7 – was no exception.

Aired February 16th, the episode features the family’s response to discovering Dre (Anthony Anderson) and Rainbow’s (Tracee Ellis Ross) son, Junior (Marcus Scribner,) smoking pot. While his grandmother demands he go to church with her to avoid the temptations of drugs, Dre and Rainbow decide to try it themselves while the kids are away. However, Dre quickly realizes his anxiety about being a Black man using drugs prevents him from enjoying the experience.

“The fact of the matter is Black people get judged for doing it (using cannabis) in a way white people don’t,” Dre explains to his predominantly white friends. “The War on Drugs has it so we are 4 times more likely to get arrested for marijuana possession than white people, and that’s after legalization. It’s not worth the risks.”

Dre is likely referencing a recent study that analyzed the rate of marijuana-related arrests by state. The report showed a shocking disparity between the number of white people and the number of Black people arrested for cannabis possession, even in states where adult-use is legal. Overall, Black people were shown to be 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white people in the United States, even though only about 2 percent more Black people use cannabis than white people, and, in some regions, white people are more likely to use cannabis than any other race.

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This disturbing fact begs the question – to what extent is the War on Drugs still effecting people of color?

Let’s get a little background first.

Most people associate the War on Drugs with the 60s and 70s, but the connection between cannabis and racism goes back long before that. At the turn of the century, William Randolph Hearst (media tycoon and progenitor of this publication) used cannabis coverage as an outlet to spread racist ideas about people of color through his newspapers, blaming these people for the growing popularity of cannabis in the country. And many other people of influence perpetrated the idea that minorities were to blame for America’s drug problem.

Then in 1971, the War on Drugs began when Richard Nixon began blaming drug-use for the increased crime and poverty of the era. The number of Black people arrested for drug possession shot up, and almost half of drug-related arrests involved marijuana.

Between 1980 and 1997, the number of people incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses in the U.S. rose from 50,000 to 400,000. Most of those prisoners were either Black or Latino, despite the fact that harder drugs like cocaine were being used by wealthy white people with little to no repercussions. The Drug Policy Alliance argues the War on Drugs was as oppressive for Black communities as the Jim Crow laws.

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According to Cannabis Law Attorney Yvette McDowell, residual trauma from the War on Drugs makes it common for Black parents and grandparents to be more concerned about openly using cannabis than their children.

“I think the elderly still resist talking about cannabis openly, and that’s passed down from our ancestors,” McDowell said. “Many elderly Black people are using CBD to treat illnesses and will tell you they believe in it in individual conversations, but would never advertise that they use it, because that old stigma still stings.”

“Black-ish” succeeded in portraying the varied levels of comfortability with cannabis within a multigenerational family – from the grandmother who sees her grandson’s smoke sesh as the first step to hell, to the high school student (Junior) who respects his family’s anxiety around cannabis-use, but feels safe enough to continue to smoke responsibly.

But one aspect the show did not touch is the racial disparity that still exists in the cannabis industry. According to the latest stats, only 4 percent of cannabis businesses in the U.S. are owned by Black people, compared to a whopping 81 percent owned by white people.

Hazey Taughtme, Editor-in-Chief of Black Cannabis Magazine, said he believes the small number of Black entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry shows Black people using cannabis is still considered taboo.

“The only time mainstream media wants to mention anyone Black in the cannabis industry is during Black History Month,” Taughtme said. “Or if you’re Jay Z and can command millions of clicks. Look at where the money is going – we are still looked at as criminals while whites are getting filthy rich.”

Mskindness Ramirez, Exeutive Director of Club Kindness (a holistic cannabis education organization that promotes social justice in the cannabis industry) said female Black entrepreneurs are particularly underrepresented.

“With the rise in popularity around CBD, more white women are publicizing their use of a plant that our ancestors had been using to heal their families for centuries,” Ramirez said. “This is what the media and the spread of misinformation can do to entire groups and subcultures. It’s unfair, and it’s time for it to stop.”

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Over the past year, Ramirez has been working with Black entrepreneurs, especially women, to provide them with the necessary tools and know-how to launch their own businesses. While there is still much work to do, the outcry against racism in 2020 spurred several intentional, long-overdue initiatives to bring Black entrepreneurs into the cannabis space.

“The forced reconstruction brought on by the incidents of 2020 have created an avenue for Black people to see more opportunities in cannabis,” Ramirez said. “Veterans of the movement are coming together to create spaces with access for young, Black entrepreneurs to enter the arena. We see now, more than ever, the need to stand together, and we are engineering creative ways to enforce reparations through hemp and cannabis.”

Elissa Esher is Assistant Editor at GreenState. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Guardian, Brooklyn Paper, Religion Unplugged, and Iridescent Women. Send inquiries and tips to elli.esher@hearst.com.