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African Americans & Their Role in the History of Cannabis

Marijuana has an incredibly long and rich history spanning over a thousand years and nearly every continent. It has been used for both medicine and recreation and in many cultures is considered sacred. This continues to hold true today and, despite the stereotypes and misunderstandings many people still have in the United States, marijuana is actually an important part of modern life for many people. If you have any questions about medical marijuana, are curious if it fits your needs, or want to find a nearby Ohio medical marijuana doctor, DocMJ can help you! Our website offers a quick search of certified doctors and a quick and easy pre-qualification exam!

A Quick Look Into the History of Cannabis

Before medical marijuana became largely accepted in the United States, and even before the United States itself, humans were actively growing and using marijuana. It is believed that marijuana is indigenous to central Asia and was largely originally used as both a food source and for its plant material [1]. 

Marijuana, hemp, or cannabis was also used in ancient religions. According to some scholars, the Vedas mention a drug called soma, which they believe to be what we call cannabis. Both the Greeks and Romans are also thought to have used marijuana, and for a variety of reasons. Herodotus, an ancient Greek historian wrote of people using hemp during rituals, and hemp seeds have been found in tombs dating back to the Iron Age [2].

As time goes on, marijuana begins to spread around the world, namely, to Africa, Western Europe, and the Americas. The Spanish countries in particular took to cultivating marijuana as a cash crop. In the newly formed United States, hemp became a hugely popular, if not fundamental, plant valued for its plant material. Hemp fibers were used for many things, including clothing and rope. 

Most of us are familiar with the modern history of marijuana in the US. Around the turn of the century, in the early 1900’s, hemp and marijuana began facing social backlash as more people began to believe it caused behavioral and mental issues. By 1940, marijuana and hemp were banned in the United States, a stance that wouldn’t change until only recently. 

African Americans and the History of Cannabis

Despite the anthropological and historical significance and popularity of marijuana, literature on the role of African Americans, and even Africa as a whole, is very light. In fact, much of the information we have about the history of marijuana in Africa comes from traders and travelers, a potentially biased source on both the people themselves and the use of the plant. For example, one missionary wrote he felt disgusted by the smoking of marijuana [3].

One of the most comprehensive resources we have on marijuana in Africa, and subsequently the rest of the world was written by Dr. Chris Duvall, a professor at the University of New Mexico. It outlines the general history of marijuana in Africa from its beginnings to the proliferation of African ideas and paraphernalia via trade and, perhaps more importantly, slavery [4]. 

Unfortunately, much of the recent history of marijuana and African Americans is linked to slavery and its impact on later culture and thought. Prior to that, however, marijuana had a large impact on African people, first starting as a potential source of inter-tribal war to a tool of peace. This acceptance of marijuana had a large impact on later peoples, and the use and knowledge of marijuana may have been carried by slaves across the ocean to the Americas. This idea is expanded upon by Dr. Duvall, who explains that the conventional wisdom and commonly repeated thoughts of African traditions concerning cannabis may be at least partially based on rumors and falsehoods brought about by inaccurate record-keeping.  

This proliferation of knowledge brought about by the slave trade resulted in a diaspora, which in itself led to differences and changes in traditions and beliefs by region. In the United States specifically, there is again little knowledge on marijuana use and customs in African American populations. It is thought that, in areas outside the US, slave owners, who at this time were growing hemp and marijuana in large amounts to satisfy textile and fiber demand, may have used marijuana to pacify slave populations, though no claims of this have been found locally. 

Some historians believe that marijuana largely entered the US in the nineteenth century with Mexican immigrants and sailors who were returning from the Carribean. In recent history, there is much more consensus that widespread use of marijuana, at least in the US, can be linked to music. In the early twentieth century, jazz musicians, a large portion of which were African American, were well-known for using marijuana as a way to relax and increase creativity. 

In the 1970’s, the War on Drugs began in earnest, and arrests related to marijuana jumped, with a disproportionate amount of arrests coming from African American households and neighborhoods, a phenomenon which continues to today [5]. Despite this, awareness of marijuana continued to grow, largely due to African American musicians like Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, and Snoop Dogg, who now is the owner of his own brand of marijuana. 

This leads us to today and the explosive growth in marijuana research and literacy. Politically, many national and local community leaders who pushed, and continue to push, for legalization were African American and represented a growing group looking to end decades of distrust and stereotypes. 

In Summary

Marijuana was used globally by many societies and cultures. Though it originally likely grew in central Asia, it quickly spread to the rest of the world. Despite misconceptions and years of underrepresentation in scientific literature, it is becoming more clear that some of the biggest proliferators of marijuana knowledge were African people displaced through slavery. In the US, African Americans are responsible in large part for overall marijuana acceptance through both art and culture. If you have questions about medical marijuana and want to speak with a certified physician near you, DocMJ can help you book online right through our website! On our website, you can also find more articles on our blog, some answers to many frequently asked questions, and a super easy survey that can help you find out if you pre-qualify for a recommendation!


[1] https://books.google.com/books?id=SnUlDQAAQBAJ&pg=PA96#v=onepage&q&f=false

[2] https://www.worldcat.org/title/marihuana-americas-new-drug-problem-a-sociologic-question-with-its-basic-explanation-dependent-on-biologic-and-medical-principles/oclc/2079322

[3] Burton, R. F. (2000). Scinde, or, The unhappy valley. Karachi: Indus Publications.

[4] https://www.dukeupress.edu/Assets/PubMaterials/978-1-4780-0394-6_601.pdf

[5] https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/field_document/tale_of_two_countries_racially_targeted_arrests_in_the_era_of_marijuana_reform_revised_7.1.20_0.pdf


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