Words: Amy Paterson

Image: Jonathan Kemper from Unsplash

As the world moves towards a greener future by embracing cannabis and bringing it into the mainstream, it is easy to lose sight of the ways in which the plant is used as a pawn in black & white politics.

In the United States in particular (where recreational weed is legal in 18 of 50 states and decriminalised in yet 13 more), cannabis has been notoriously weaponised in racial politics, giving way to a wealth of blatant hypocrisies and bitter ironies in the wake of the country’s booming new cannabis industry.

In a country like South Africa, whose history is also laden with racial inequality and discrimination, it seems pretty important that we dissect and learn from the misfires & maladies of American commercial cannabis so that we can recognise, call out and avoid engraining them in our own legalisation landscape.

Let’s unpack the American precedent.


The legalisation of weed in America has naturally resulted in a reassessment of the cases of the thousands of people who have been persecuted and imprisoned for cannabis-related offences in the past. And historically, an overwhelming majority of these have been brown and black people.

This can be traced back to former president Richard Nixon’s declaration of the ‘War on Drugs’ back in 1971,  which one of his aides, John Ehrlichman, later admitted was actually just a political strategy to get the country to associate drugs and their evils with liberals and people of colour.

“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 criminalising both heavily, we could disrupt those communities," Ehrlichman said. "We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news." And the results were devastating.

Let’s talk numbers.

A review of incarceration data shows that between 1975 and 2020, the USA prison population jumped by 500%, with 1 in 5 people incarcerated having a drug offence listed as their most serious crime. Since then, the number of Americans incarcerated for drug offences has shot up from 40 900 in 1980 to 430 926 in 2019, with harsh sentencing laws keeping many people convicted of drug offences in prison for longer than ever before.

And along with stricter penalties for crack cocaine, cannabis and other drugs, the black incarceration rate in America jumped 300% in 30 years - from 600 per 100 000 people in 1970 to 1 808 by the year 2000. According to Human Rights Watch, in seven states black people constitute between 80-90% of all people sent to prison on drug charges, while nationwide black men are sent to state prison on drug charges at 13 times the rate of white men. 

Even with decrimininalisation being a reality in some 33 states now, and despite both groups using cannabis at the same rate, black people remain almost 4 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis-related charges than white people. As writer Ashley Duchemin notes, people of colour have yet to reap the benefits of decriminalisation in states like New York, where your neighbourhood will determine the likelihood of you being stopped for cannabis.

“Precincts in white neighbourhoods like the Upper West Side and Park Slope have reported a number of punitive interactions that is three times lower than those in nearby low-income, minority neighbourhoods such as East Harlem and Prospect Park.”

“While as a whole decriminalisation means a step forward, it isn’t full legalisation, it isn’t reparations for an unjust war on people of colour, and it shouldn’t be lauded as such - especially when the victims of these racist laws are still the overwhelming majority of those targeted.”

And it seems that not even full legalisation makes a difference. After cannabis was completely legalised in 2012 in Colorado (the first state to do it), a study released in 2015 showed that even though the number of charges for weed possession and distribution plummeted by 95% in the years that followed, black people were still twice as likely to get arrested for the charge of smoking in public than white people.


While white-owned companies and industry investors profiting from decriminalisation have funnelled a lot of effort into sanctifying cannabis and sloughing off its “criminal” past, those who have been incarcerated cannot shake off their felonies quite so easily.

Nor can they even benefit from getting involved in the industry themselves once they are free, as cannabis remains federally illegal and so there are strict regulations on who can and can’t work with it (i.e. no one with a criminal record). Buzzfeed’s story of Unique Henderson sums up this hypocrisy:

“When Colorado’s first medical marijuana dispensaries opened in 2009, Unique Henderson was psyched. He’d been smoking weed since he was 15, and he’d even learned how to grow, from his ex-girlfriend’s father. He spent $750 on classes about how to run a cannabis business, and then he and a friend both applied to work at a Denver pot shop. 

“Then only his friend was hired. Henderson was more than qualified, so why didn’t he get the gig? His friend asked the managers and came back with infuriating news: Henderson was not allowed to work in the legal cannabis industry because he had been caught twice with a joint’s worth of pot as a teenager back in Oklahoma, and as a result he has two drug possession felonies on his record. 

“For most jobs, experience will help you get ahead. In the marijuana industry, it’s not that simple. Yes, investors and state governments are eager to hire and licence people with expertise in how to cultivate, cure, trim, and process cannabis. But it can’t be someone who got caught. Which for the most part means it can’t be someone who is black.”

So, after bearing the brunt of the war on drugs, Black Americans are now missing out on the economic opportunities and potential that legalisation presents. While few facts and stats exist around race and ownership within the cannabis industry, a 2017 report published by Marijuana Business Daily reflected that while approximately 81% of cannabis business owners or founders are white, only 4% are African American. 

And because of zoning permissions, wealthy, white-owned dispensaries are also populating and further gentrifying low-income, minority and industrial areas in big cities like Denver, Colorado. Not only do these take the place of inexpensive housing and community spaces, but they also leave few affordable options for any future dispensaries to be opened by anyone from those communities with a cannabis conviction - should national legalisation eventually allow them to have a stake in the industry.


To make matters worse, a study of 60 cannabis-related advertisements sourced within magazines around the Denver and Boulder metro areas in Colorado by Carmen Mabee in 2019 indicates that this gentrification of cannabis “occurs not only within the physical make-up of space, but also within the ideological space.”

The whitewashing of weed is something that can be seen all over the media, having been used as a marketing tool for legalisation efforts and to bring cannabis into public acceptance in any attempt to get rid of the bad reputation it gained.

“Years of anti-marijuana messaging during the War on Drugs painted an unseemly picture of the marijuana industry in the eyes of mainstream, USA. To successfully promote the industry to the mainstream, a massive public relations campaign was unleashed to destigmatize the space.

“This began through a whitewashed framing of legalisation campaigns [which] explicitly painted ‘white, hardworking, middle-class marijuana consumers’ as the deserving beneficiaries of legal marijuana. This messaging was consistent throughout each campaign that launched legalisation conversations into the mainstream, which includes the states of Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska.”

And even now that weed has become fully legalised in these states, the whitewashing continues in advertisements for the now freely sold cannabis products. White women pictured doing yoga in two separate ads for CBD products, a white couple beaming as they ski the slopes promoting transdermal cannabis creams, a long-haired hipster in clout goggles gaping at a vape, a fancy looking blonde woman in an upscale club.

These images portray cannabis through an idealised lens of legality, vitality, health, classiness and coolness that is palatable for the white mainstream market, by default standing in comparison to the illicit, villainous face of cannabis that was projected onto black and marginalised communities through the rhetoric of Nixon’s war on drugs.

“These advertisements seek to promote a revitalised or gentrified version of the marijuana user through a whitewashed separation of the legal marijuana user from the illegal marijuana user. Through this separation, marketeers are able to provide a sense of safety for prospective consumers and investors to participate in the market.”

In television portrayals, whitewashing abounds too. Mabee also points to the “soccer mom chic” subculture - “Media portrayals of white suburban mom marijuana users, like in the popular show Weeds, have taken the marijuana market by storm.”

“The trope is aplenty in legal states such as Colorado, with blog sites and support groups dedicated to this topic (The Stoner Mom; Jane West; HeyHelloHigh; Marijuana Mommy). Marketers know this consumer base well, and nothing speaks to the soccer-mom like appeals to natural and organic products.”

In Weed, Whitewashed” Niela Orr argues that other shows like the much beloved High Maintenance are a prime example of the cannabis industry hitting on the “hipster-capitalist moment” to portray a “cloistered world where getting high is just a slightly more subversive brand of upper-middle-class cocooning.”

The white dude weed dealer at the centre of the series never once encounters or engages with police officers or the threat of violence, instead living a quirky, peaceful existence as he pedals around the city, humming merrily to the sound of his airpods, on his way to deliver the goods to his middle class, mostly white clientele.

“It promulgates a new mainstream-friendly narrative for the pot business. The show provides a nicer, safer, easier way to address weed dealing than the material associated with the drug distribution networks in many places where the drug is still not legal… The net effect is to white out the drug trade as it actually exists in locales like New York.”**

**Cannabis has since been legalised in New York.


So - who is doing the dirty work when it comes to overcoming the problem whitewashing?

For the black people who have been unfairly incarcerated or are struggling with having a criminal record for cannabis crimes, there is light at the end of the tunnel with bills like the “Marijuana Justice Act” proposed by senator Cory Booker.

If passed, it would not only see cannabis made federally legal, and those incarcerated for using or selling it would be resentenced or have their records expunged, but it would also allow states to be sued for any disproportionate arresting and imprisoning of Black or low-income people on cannabis charges.

In terms of ownership and determining who gets to partake in and profit from the weed industry, it seems that, as Duchemin points out, black women in particular are at the forefront of change.

“Women of colour have been especially vocal in drug-policy reform, inclusive marijuana licensing laws, and the fight against the injustice and hypocrisy of this shift. For many of them, championing these issues is not just an act of compassion or activism, it’s a daily lived reality. The people they are fighting for are not hypothetical bodies in uniforms or distant from themselves. They are brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, children and other loved ones and friends, and ultimately they are a reflection of themselves and their communities - and of their place in society.” 

Wanda James is known for being the first woman of colour to own a legal medical dispensary in Colorado, and she spends the other half of her time speaking out against the injustices of a system profiting from criminalising people of colour. 

Speaking out in a Mic video, she notes “When you start to look at the number of white males making billions off of this plant and black males serving time because of this plant, it does not make sense that in America, your zip code determines whether you’re a millionaire or a felon.”

Growing awareness and critical thought around cannabis in the media is calling for an end to whitewashed cannabis marketing, and hopefully in the future we will see the world of weed and those who use it being represented more inclusively and honestly in the media. In the meantime, the responsibility lies with all of us to challenge and call out the whitewashing they see like Niela Orr and Carmen Mabee have done.

Mary Pryor is the co-founder of Cannaclusive, an organisation that works to facilitate fair representation of minority cannabis consumers. After noticing an influx of money hungry corporations closing in on the cannabis industry, but seeing no people of colour or women on their boards, and only “white, bro-y” bodies in cannabis advertising, she was moved to take action.

Cannaclusive offers a free stock photo gallery to give small cannabis businesses the ability to avoid perpetuating the problem of whitewashed imagery, and they offer a free directory called InlusiveBase, which includes all the people of colour who are leaders within the cannabis community in America.

In 2020 they also launched The Accountability List - a multi-sourced database of information on nearly 300 cannabis companies in the USA, providing information such as their number of black employees, how they handled the murder of George Floyd, and if they have made any donations of relevance. Each company receives an overall diversity report and score, and those failing to meet Cannaclusive’s minimum standards are highlighted.

Pryor and her collaborators also authored an open letter addressed to the “Cannabis and Hemp Community”, asking companies ‘to prioritise diversity through inclusion support, employment practices, reversing the impact of the War on Drugs and increasing Black, indigenous and POC leadership.’ 

Says Pryor: “My role that I’m taking in this is to lift up brands that “get it”, that are inclusive, that are run properly, that are sustainable. I’m not looking to work with people who are trying to make things fit in a place where they’re excluding marginalised citizens.”


Here in South Africa, our future cannabis industry runs perhaps an even greater risk - that of excluding the majority of citizens in its operations and in its narrative.

Our troubled racial past - together with the worst levels of inequality in the world, and the centuries old traditional relationship that exists between cannabis and people of colour here - leaves us wide open to experiencing the same hurt, hypocrisy and exploitation as America.

It is our job to ensure that we take similar if not more drastic measures towards a cannabis industry that is fair, inclusive, representational and reparational to those who have been persecuted for the same plant that will soon be lining the pockets of those at the front of the green rush. 

Next up, we’ll be chatting to well known and respected South African lawyer Ricky Stone on the topic of whitewashing, the legalisation landscape and the future of cannabis in our country.

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