Why You Need To Watch ‘The Human Toll: How The War On Cannabis Targeted Black America’
A poignant new online series draws attention to the way cannabis prohibition has driven and continues to drive racial inequality and unjust incarceration among Black communities in the United States.
Produced by Vanity Fair and Pax Labs, the three-part docuseries, The Human Toll: How The War On Cannabis Targeted Black America, offers viewers a nuanced look at the origins and undertones of U.S. drug policy, and where these misinformed policies have led us to today.
Created in part to mark 50 years since President Richard Nixon declared his “all-out offensive” against drugs, the series opens with Last Prisoner Project director of strategic initiatives Natalie Papillion making an important distinction:
“The war on drugs has never really been a war on drugs—you can’t declare a war on a thing,” she says. “You declare a war on a people… the war on drugs has been a war on people, and more specifically it’s been a war on Black people.”
The War On Race
In part one, Marijuana Policy Project executive director Steven Hawkins begins by diving into the history of U.S. cannabis policy. In the late 1800s and early 1900s cannabis was legal, with ads for cannabis tinctures even appearing in the New York Times.
“It wasn’t until it became racialized that it became illegal in the United States,” Hawkins says.
When jazz music became popular in the 1920s, many musicians wrote songs about cannabis (or ‘reefer’ as it was more commonly referred to) and the feelings it gave them. It wasn’t long before white America began associating Black people with cannabis use, and by the 1930s one politician was set on using that association to develop drug policy that would “divide Americans along racial lines,” according to John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute.
The politician in question, Harry Anslinger was an “avowed racist” who frequently used the phrase “degenerate races” to describe Black and Mexican Americans. Hudak explains that around the same time, many Mexican immigrants were crossing the border into the U.S., bringing cannabis with them. When Anslinger and his team of propagandists began making movies like Reefer Madness to discourage the use of cannabis, they intentionally called it ‘marijuana’ so that viewers would associate it with foreigners.
“This was that divisive language that could scare Americans, not just about the substance itself, but about the users of that substance,” says Hudak.
“By painting the marijuana use of these disfavoured classes, Mexican Americans, African Americans, and beatniks and hippies when we get into the later war on drugs, we have this opportunity for the government to use a substance as a cipher for an internal threat to American prosperity and democracy and social cohesion,” says Papillion.
Since then, drug policies have targeted Black and Brown Americans at alarming rates. Even in 2018 after several states had legalized, there were 630,000 arrests for cannabis in the United States, and while rates of use are equal among Black and white Americans, Black people are almost four times more likely to be arrested.
In part two, the toll of the war on cannabis is realized. Hawkins begins by reminding viewers of the cultural climate in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when young Black men were conveyed in the media as ‘violent predators.’ In reality, it was low-level drug prosecutions that were the most common.
“Kids walking down the street, somebody smoking a joint, getting charged with low level possession—those became the targeted ways that police implemented the war on drugs and really racially targeted particular communities for low-level drug prosecutions,” says Hawkins.
And with three-strike rules in play, for some people, having three minor non-violent drug offences could result in a life sentence.
Beyond cannabis arrests and convictions which generally hover around 650,000 annually, as many as five times the number of people are stopped randomly by police each year, and the majority of these stops occur among communities of colour. The collateral consequences of being harassed by the police so regularly, Hawkins says, “chips away” at one’s sense of self-worth and dignity.
Last Prisoner Project ambassadors Corvain Cooper and Evelyn LaChapelle are also interviewed in part two. Both were convicted of nonviolent cannabis-related crimes and even after serving their sentences continue to pay the price for low-level offences.
LaChapelle, a first-time non-violent cannabis offender with a college degree, a home, and a family, was originally sentenced to 24 years in prison. In the film, she describes waiving her rights to an appeal and receiving 87 months in prison, as she says, “for the egregious act of depositing cannabis profits into my bank account.”
Later in the episode in a moment I won’t soon forget, she recalls watching a TV interview with a fellow non-violent cannabis offender while in jail. The interview featured the owners of the Beverly Hills Cannabis Club, who told the Channel 7 news host that business was ‘booming’.
“Business is booming? You’ve got 10 (years), I’ve got seven, that’s 17 years for the same activity this lady on the Channel 7 news is doing,” she had said to her fellow inmate at the time.
“And let’s be clear, me and this lady on the screen did not look the same.”
In part three, experts interviewed in the film argue that while some people and organizations are doing the excruciating work of advocating for pardons and expungement, not enough is being done to account for the racial inequalities that continue to occur, especially in states where cannabis is legal.
Cooper described the way he and others who have past cannabis convictions continue to suffer due to non-violent records, while large, mostly white-owned corporations have swooped in to take over what was once an illicit industry.
“Right now, even though I’m out and even though I’ve got clemency and I’m free, the bondage is not over,” he says. “Anything that you do, you’re going to have to walk a thin line and walk straight forward on parole, or you’re going to go right back to where you came from… it’s blocking me from opportunities and being in the industry all the way.”
Papillion explains that for people of colour in the cannabis industry, accessing capital can be incredibly challenging. She says that while for some (read: white people) it may feel like the war on cannabis is over, for many more, it rages on.
The Human Toll illustrates in less than half an hour how American drug policy has intentionally targeted Black and racialized communities, while simultaneously and systematically denying them the rights to participate in an industry that they helped create. The series is a much-need reflection on the broken state of drug policy in the United States, and a must-watch for anyone who calls themselves a cannabis enthusiast.