The Legalization of Marijuana Still Doesn’t Include Everyone
Today is April 20, or 420, a day where marijuana consumers celebrate cannabis in all its forms. From festivals to limited-time deals, the unofficial holiday has been commercialized by companies and brands riding the current “Green Rush” wave thanks to changing views of the drug. Earlier this month, lawmakers in the House of Representatives passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE) which would decriminalize cannabis (Congress). If passed into law, criminal penalties for individuals who manufacture, distribute, or possess marijuana would be eliminated. It would also create a process to expunge convictions of those incarcerated for cannabis-related offenses. Because despite the green-washing and growing support for decriminalizing cannabis, people, disproportionately people of color, are still being arrested for possession. Many more are serving lengthy sentences in states where others are currently profiting from its legalization.
For many years, cannabis, also known as marijuana, has long been classified as an illegal drug. Though the rates of usage between white and non-white communities are grossly similar, people from predominantly Black communities are mostly targeted for having possession of it. Today, 18 states and the District of Columbia have fully legalized recreational pot, 37 states have authorized medicinal use, and 91% of Americans believe that marijuana should be legal to some degree (CNET). Though this is a big leap towards reform, making up for the brutal inequalities of an expensive and racist drug war is a long path to tread.
According to the ACLU’s 2013 analysis, “marijuana arrests account for more than half of all drug arrests in the United States. Of the 8.2 million marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010, 88% were simply for having marijuana in their possession. Despite the roughly equal usage rates, Black people are 3.73 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana” (American Civil Liberties Union).
By 2020, the analysis for arrests in the Black population dropped only nine points, making people of color 3.64 times more likely to get arrested. These facts are calculated on a nationwide basis. Still, it is reported that not only are people of color prone to being arrested for the possession of marijuana in every single state, but in some states, they are up to six, eight, or almost ten times more likely to be arrested compared to the same amount of white people being stopped and/or caught for the same thing. Even in Canada, statistics show that Black and Indigenous people are over-represented amongst those arrested (NORML).
The way cannabis is viewed and talked about was used to create discontent and alienation, which resulted in little pushback when incarceration due to possession or distribution occurred. For example, the part of the cannabis plant consumed for smoking is often referred to as marijuana, a term that’s steeped in racism itself. The term “marijuana” was used intentionally by anti-drug leaders to emphasize its “foreignness” and stoke anti-immigrant sentiment. It was positioned as a drug that was used by “degenerates” and responsible for keeping them “in low social conditions” (NPR).
“Politicians across the political divide spent much of the twentieth century using marijuana as a means of dividing America. By painting the drug as a scourge from south of the border . . . marijuana as a drug and the laws that sought to control it played on some of America’s worst tendencies around race, ethnicity, civil disobedience, and otherness,” says John Hudak of his book, Marijuana: A Short History. “. . . U.S. government officials first painted cannabis as an insidious substance flowing across the border like immigrants from Mexico. Next, the government described cannabis as a drug for the inner city and for Blacks while also lying about it, leading to murder, rape, and insanity. Next, political opponents of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan designed and enforced laws to target a variety of groups across America” (Brookings).
As a result of the aggressive enforcement of the marijuana possession laws carried out by excessive racial bias, hundreds of thousands of people are thrown into the criminal justice system. This not only deducts billions of dollars out of taxpayers’ pockets, but the personal cost individuals pay for those arrests is significant and can linger for years. The repercussions of being arrested prevent those charged from being eligible for public housing, student financial aid, employment opportunities, child custody determinations, and immigration status (American Civil Liberties Union). Not only do these people get pushed out of society after going to jail, but now, the industry that once provided a living for them and their families is legally out of arm’s reach because of drug charges on their backgrounds. The industry that once financially supported and criminalized people of color in low-income communities historically is now being deemed as medicinal when big white corporations, white businesses, and white farmers want to make a profit.
Now that marijuana is being legalized, it is becoming harder for people of color to share in the cannabis boom. Government rules will decide who can profit from growing the crop. At the moment, those rules favor well-connected, corporate growers rather than independent farmers, much less independent farmers of color (The Atlantic). In places where medical marijuana is legal, people find it extremely difficult to obtain a grower’s license. In New York, only ten companies own licenses to cultivate and dispense marijuana, and licenses can sell well up to tens of millions of dollars. When regulators dictate who grows a cash crop, they can make choices to help spread the wealth. However, when done “wrong,” these regulators deliberately make it to where a “certain type of person” doesn’t get to partake in it, in this case, the exclusion of BIPOC farmers. But like the tobacco industry, cannabis is made legal so that the rich can get richer, “endowing a designated class of Americans with a way of life that buoyed entire regional economies” (The Atlantic).
When it comes to the War on Drugs, Black and Brown people still face the brunt of it. There are too many people in the BIPOC community incarcerated because of charges related to marijuana possession. To make matters worse, that same industry portrayed as being destructible for society is now legal in most states. The licensure system for marijuana cultivation should award licenses to a larger number of applicants from communities hit the hardest. Legalization and decriminalization should eliminate future arrests and expunge past offenses. And more effective policies should be implemented to create new and lasting ownership opportunities for people of color and those with previous, low-level cannabis convictions, including farming, distribution, and sales. Though efforts are being made toward repair, we still have a long way to go.
The history of cannabis policy and the criminal justice system in the U.S. shows that racism is institutionalized and enforced in Black communities. It is now legalization that must institutionalize the means for the recovery of Black and Brown people and the communities they live in (Brookings).
Black people are nearly four times more likely to get arrested for possession of marijuana than white people.
Eleven states and the District of Columbia have fully legalized recreational pot, 15 states decriminalized it, and 33 states have authorized medicinal use of it.
There needs to be more inclusive policies for marijuana farming.
There should be automatic expungement for people who hold low-level possession of marijuana convictions.
*This piece was originally published on 3/23/2. It was updated and edited by The ARD on 4/20/22.