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Afro-Americans, Cannabis, and India: Entangled Histories

Afro-Americans have a history partially entangled with the global history of the spread of cannabis culture, and through cannabis, with India. International trade first brought cannabis culture from India to Africa; then, it was taken from Africa to the Caribbean and Central and South America through migration. From there, it arrived in the USA.

Cannabis Culture Arrives in Africa

Most probably, it was Arab traders who first introduced cannabis culture to the eastern, coastal region of Africa, between the Horn of Africa and Mozambique, in the 8th or 9th centuries (du Toit 1974:268; Clarke and Merlin 2013:126).

However, it was the wild, lawless Qalandar Sūfīs who were the group who had a more significant influence in first introducing recreational cannabis culture to Africa, to Egypt in the 12th and 13th centuries. Qalandars famously ate bhāṅg in various kinds of preparations, notably in sweets.

A painting from 1790 depicts a group of Hindus (and their dogs) enjoying bhang in Ancient India. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The earliest evidence of cannabis smoking in Africa has been found further south, in Ethiopia, where traces have been found in the ceramic bowls of pipes dating to around 1320 CE (van der Merwe 1975). Thousands of Africans from Abyssinia (which became Ethiopia) came to India, originally as slaves, perhaps as early as the 4th century CE, from the Horn of Africa. Indians also sailed to and settled in Ethiopia.

In India, these Ethiopians were known as Ḥabshīs. They gradually rose in status and became widely employed as soldiers and bodyguards. Between the 14th and 17th centuries, they flourished in the Deccan sultanates and on the west coast of India as traders and artists; some, such as Malik Ambar (1548–1626), became rulers in the Deccan and in the Indian states of Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Bengal (Pandey 2014; Pillai 2018). This was possibly an important transmission route for cannabis arriving in Ethiopia from India.

Cannabis Comes again from India to Africa

From around 1500 CE, sailors on Portuguese ships plying the Indian Ocean more widely introduced cannabis culture from the west coast of India to the east coast of Africa, from the Horn of Africa as far south as Mozambique. In this coastal region, cannabis is usually known as bang (from the Portuguese bangue, which comes from the Hindi term bhāṅg).

After 1500 CE, cannabis culture gradually spread further south, through Bantu-speaking people, from Mozambique to South Africa (du Toit 1975:84–86), where it is called dagga. From the south and from the eastern coast of Africa, cannabis culture then spread to central and central-west Africa, where it is usually called diamba/riamba/liamba, or a variant (du Toit 1975:87; Duvall 2015:92–94).

Only much later, after 1850, did cannabis smoking spread north to the Sahara region and to countries in northwest Africa, such as Nigeria and Ghana.

Historical dispersal of cannabis in Africa. Credit.

The Slave Trade Carries Cannabis to South America

Between the early 16th and 19th centuries, around 12.5 million slaves were exported from Africa. They were mostly taken from ports in Angola, in west-central Africa, from where some took cannabis seeds and culture with them to the Caribbean region and Brazil. Between 1760 and 1860, the most significant slave traffic (69% of the total) was from (Portuguese) Angola to (Portuguese) Brazil. By the 1700s, slaves had introduced cannabis culture to South and Central America (Duvall 2015:100). Slaves and labourers often used cannabis to help relieve the oppressive conditions in which they lived.

Early South American cannabis use. Credit.

Indian Labourers Bring Cannabis to the Caribbean

Another essential component in the spread of cannabis culture to the USA was via the Caribbean, with the arrival of indentured South Asian labourers who smoked cannabis. They were shipped worldwide by the British between 1810 and 1920 (Duvall 2019:45).

Beginning in the 1830s, slavery started to become abolished in many countries. However, there was still a great need for labourers, particularly in the sugar plantations of some Caribbean countries, particularly in Jamaica and Trinidad, which were administered by the British. Around 1.27 million Indian indentured labourers were shipped by British entrepreneurs from India to regions they administered in the empire, including those in the Caribbean. Many of them smoked weed. In one report, around a quarter of them on a typical trading ship was gāñjā smokers (Banks 2021:58–61).

Initially, around 5,000 Chinese labourers were imported to Jamaica, but they proved to be unsatisfactory. They were replaced by about 33,000 Indian labourers (van Solinge 1996:3), brought in primarily to replace African slaves, who were emancipated in 1838 when slavery was abolished. Due to the influence and culture of Indian labourers, by the late 1840s, cannabis use had become widely established in the Caribbean.

East Indian Coolies in Trinidad – Project Gutenberg eText 16035

In countries neighbouring Jamaica, such as Suriname, Trinidad, and Guyana, cannabis culture gradually declined over the next few decades after the 1840s, becoming much less used by 1915. However, in the late 1960s and 1970s, cannabis culture then significantly revived in those countries in a global trend.

In Jamaica, by contrast, cannabis culture continued to flourish after the 1840s, spreading widely to rural and urban African populations, the descendants of former slaves, who comprise around 80% of Jamaica’s 2.5 million people (Hamid 2002: x–xxix).

By 1881, 23.5% of the population of Trinidad and 31.6% of British Guyana were Indian (Banks 2021:61). This large influx of Indian labourers to the Caribbean and Guyana in South America was the main impetus behind establishing cannabis culture in the region, as many former African slaves in those countries also adopted the culture from Indian migrants.

Cannabis Culture Arrives in North America

Even though cannabis had been added to the American pharmacopeia in 1861, cannabis smoking culture arrived in North America from two primary sources: Mexico and the Caribbean. During and after the Mexican civil war, from 1910–1920, thousands of Mexicans crossed over the border, mainly to the southern states of the USA, bringing with them ‘marijuana,’ which was readily identified in the popular press as a dangerous drug menace introduced by them to the USA (Johnson 2017:28–41).

A consequence was the infusion of weed into the emerging jazz world in Louisiana in the early 20th century – significantly influenced by Afro-American musicians. Famous artists, such as ‘Satchmo’ Louis Armstrong and others, used to refer occasionally to weed in their songs (Lee 2012:9–13, 56–57; Warf 2014:429).

Cannabis Prohibition

The prohibition of cannabis began in the early nineteenth century: in Burma in 1820, in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil in 1830, Jamaica in 1913, Mexico in 1920, South Africa between 1903 and 1922, and in other countries from 1840 onwards. In the USA, cannabis was first outlawed in Texas and Utah in 1915 and then in several other states in the next twelve years (Johnson 2017:19–41; Sanna 2013:85; Waetjen 2021).

However, the prohibition of cannabis at the federal level, applying to all states in the USA, was famously masterminded by Harry J. Anslinger, who campaigned against cannabis from the early-1930s until his retirement in 1960 in his job as the head of the newly-created Federal Bureau of Narcotics.

In his fake propaganda, which claimed in newspapers that cannabis caused insanity and dangerous, murderous behaviour, Anslinger mainly targeted black Afro-Americans and Mexicans.

A poster advertising ‘Reefer Madness’, an anti-drugs exploitation film, dealing with the pitfalls of marijuana smoking, directed by Louis J. Gasnier, 1936. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

He was particularly offended and outraged by black jazz culture, by the ‘voodoo’ dance music. He maintained that black males who smoked weed were seducing innocent girls and turning them into violent or suicidal drug addicts. Anslinger’s campaign was very influential in the eventual, complete prohibition of all forms of cannabis in 1937 (Sloman 1998:29–125; Smith 2018; Nicholas and Churchill 2012:601).

Cannabis Laws and Afro-Americans

Penalties for smoking weed in the USA were severe after it became illegal in 1937, increasing in the 1950s. After the passing of the so-called Boggs Act of 1951, prison sentences became mandatory for possessing even a small amount of weed. Several studies conducted over the last thirty years or so have revealed that in populations where a similar number of white and black people smoke weed, it is black Afro-Americans who have been disproportionally arrested and imprisoned for it (Duvall 2019:5; Fertig 2020; Sanna 2013:71).

Remedial Cannabis Policies

On 31st March 2021, cannabis was legalised in New York, the seventeenth state to do so. The industry has been estimated to be worth 350 million dollars in New York alone. In recognition of the historical injustices concerning cannabis meted out to Afro-Americans, one of the features of the legislative framework is the stipulation that a proportion of the tax raised from the sale of cannabis will be given to ethnic-minority businesses in the area, in recognition of the historical injustices suffered by Afro-Americans and other weed-using immigrants.

It is proposed that the criminal record of people who have been prosecuted for cannabis offences in the past should be expunged from the official record. The issue of Afro-Americans and cannabis is also an element in the Black Lives Matter movement. Some people who speak for that movement campaign for the full legalisation of cannabis and the erasure of cannabis conviction records in all jurisdictions (Fertig 2020).


As a result of several historical migrations, firstly of Indians to Africa, then of African slaves to the Caribbean and South America; then a second wave of Indians to the Caribbean, and then, finally, of Caribbean Africans to the USA, cannabis has travelled around the globe, entangled in the history Afro-Americans.

External References

Banks, Jamie (2021). ‘Ganja Madness: Cannabis, Insanity, and Indentured Labor in British Guiana and Trinidad, 1881–1912. In James H. Mills and Lucas Richert (eds.), Cannabis: Global Histories, pp. 57–80. Cambridge, Massachusetts/London: MIT Press.

Bewley-Taylor, Dave, Tom Blickman, and Martin Jelsma (2014). The Rise and Decline of Cannabis Prohibition: The History of Cannabis in the UN Drug Control Systems and Options for Reform. Amsterdam/Swansea: Transnational Institute/Global Drug Policy Observatory.

Clarke, Robert C., and Mark D. Merlin (2013). Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany. Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press.

Duvall, Chris S. (2015). Cannabis. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.

——— (2019). The African Roots of Marijuana. Durham/London: Duke University Press.

Fertig, Natalie (2020). ‘Black Lives Matter movement sparks “collective awakening” on marijuana policies.’ Politico, 7th August.

Hamid, Ansley (2002). The Ganja Complex: Rastafari and Marijuana. Oxford, UK/Lanham, Maryland, USA: Lexington Books.

Johnson, Nick (2017). Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West. Corvallis:Oregon State University Press.

Lee, Martin A. (2012). Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana—Medical, Recreational, Scientific. New York/London/Toronto/Sydney/New Delhi: Scribner.

van der Merwe, Niklaus J. (1975) ‘Cannabis Smoking in 13th–14th Century: Chemical Evidence’. In Vera Rubin (ed.), Cannabis and Culture, pp. 77–80. The Hague/Paris: Mouton Publishers.

Nicholas, Phil, and Andrew Churchill (2012). ‘The Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and the Origins of Modern Drug Enforcement in the United States, 1950–1962’. Contemporary Drug Problems, vol. 39(4), pp. 595–640.

Pandey, Vikas (2014). ‘Africans in India: From slaves to reformers and rulers’. BBC News, 19th December.

Pillai, Manu S. (2018). ‘The forgotten history of the African slaves who were brought to the Deccan and rose to great power’., 19th January.

Sanna, E. J. (2013). Marijuana: Mind-Altering Weed. Broomall, Pennsylvania: Mason Crest.

Sloman, Larry “Ratso” (1998) [1979]. Reefer Madness: The History of Marijuana in America. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.

Smith, Laura (2018). ‘How a racist hate-monger masterminded America’s war on drugs’. Timeline (28th February).

van Solinge, Tim Boekhout (trans. Jeanette Roberts) (1996). ‘Ganja in Jamaica’. Amsterdams Drug Tijdschrift, no. 2 (January), pp. 11–14.

du Toit, Brian M. (1974). ‘Cannabis sativa in sub-Saharan Africa’. South African Journal of Science, vol. 20 (September), pp. 266–270.

Waetjen, Thembisa (2021). ‘Dagga: How South Africa Made a Dangerous Drug’. In James H. Mills and Lucas Richert (eds.), Cannabis: Global Histories, pp. 83–107. Cambridge, Massachusetts/London: MIT Press.

Warf, Barney (2014). ‘High Points: An Historical Geography of Cannabis’. Geography Review, vol. 104 (4), October, pp. 414–438.

Cultivation information, and media is given for those of our clients who live in countries where cannabis cultivation is decriminalised or legal, or to those that operate within a licensed model. We encourage all readers to be aware of their local laws and to ensure they do not break them.

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Matthew Clark

Since 2004, Dr. Matthew Clark has been a Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London), where he taught courses on Hinduism between 1999 and 2004. He has spent many years in India, which he first visited in 1977, visiting nearly all important (several hundred) pilgrimage sites and trekking around 2,000 miles in the Himalayas. He first engaged with yoga in the mid-1970s and began regularly practicing Ashtanga Yoga in 1990. Since 2006 has been lecturing worldwide on yoga, philosophy, and psychedelics. He is one of the editors of the Journal of Yoga Studies and is one of the administrators of the SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies. His publications include The Daśanāmī-Saṃnyāsīs: The Integration of Ascetic Lineages into an Order (2006), which is a study of a sect of sādhus; an exploration of the use of psychedelic plant concoctions in ancient Asia and Greece, The Tawny One: Soma, Haoma, and Ayahuasca (2017); and a short book on yoga, The Origins and Practices of Yoga: A Weeny Introduction (revised edition) (2018).