The Acceptance of Weed is Black and White
It is no secret that the weed industry caters to white populations. States where recreational use is legal are predominately white and the dispensaries that provide the goods are largely owned by wealthy, white businessmen looking to capitalize off this rapidly growing market. Those without prior drug possession charges, those who have enough money to start-up business, and those with extensive legal knowledge or support to navigate the convoluted federal versus state laws have the opportunity to enter this market. Everyone else is barred from distributing weed legally.
The white stoner is often portrayed as being immature, young and experimental, not criminal. His black counterpart is the one who faces prosecution, harassment and shame for the same action. This is all an intentional legacy of the 1980’s War on Drugs, a thinly veiled reinstatement of Jim Crow era policy. Police are known to intentionally target young black men during “stop and frisk” searches, looking for any reason to make an arrest. With drug-related arrests leading to massive incentives for local police departments, cops are more than motivated to find even the smallest amount of illicit substances on their target. Even though both black and white men aged 18–25 are equally as likely to possess marijuana, the statistics show that black men are disproportionately targeted by these searches. It is Blackness that is deemed a threat by those in power (the government, the police, the weed industry overall, the prison industrial complex) not marijuana.
“Such police harassment not only criminalizes people of color for engaging in an activity that white people participate in with relative impunity, it is a means of surveillance and social control counterproductive to public safety and community health.” (ACLU, 2020)
Sentencing Disparities & Those Left Behind Bars
The decriminalization of marijuana has been largely non-retroactive, meaning those serving time for possession or distribution charges are still in prison while those currently engaging in the same activities face no or limited penalties. Still, despite efforts to decriminalize, Black people are far more likely to receive prison time or more prison time for possession charges than white people.
“On average, a Black person is 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though Black and white people use marijuana at similar rates.” (ACLU, 2020)
The intentional enforcement of laws on Black offenders has only worked to reinforce feelings of distrust and lack of cooperation between Black communities and police forces. Therefore if the purpose of marijuana restrictions is to bolster public safety, they are doing a pretty god-awful job. The dramatically different arrest rates between Black and white populations purposefully works to associate Blackness with criminality, danger to the community and long-term drug use. Enforcement of marijuana laws has been and always will be in an effort to continue the legacy of Jim Crow laws. Cops will always pick and choose who they “stop and frisk” therefore there is no reform capable of correcting this issue. The first step to abolishing these practices is to legalize drug use and remove the incentives given to police forces for drug arrests.
Federal Laws and Restrictions
“At the federal level, marijuana remains a Schedule I substance, subjecting people involved in marijuana activities to harsh penalties and preventing a range of scientific research that could upend decades of propagandized misinformation driven by racism and fear.” (ACLU, 2020)
The federal versus state legality of marijuana is convuluted and confusing (guess what its on purpose (and its racist)). Even if recreational use is legal in the state you live in, your employment, housing and immigration status can be affected if you are caught using marijuana. These disparities in legal status predominately affect poor people and people of color who are more likely to be targeted and investigated for drug use. This in turn has a domino style effect on the lives of these individuals and their families.
- Families who live in federally subsidized public housing face eviction or family separation if someone is accused of using marijuana on their premises.
- Parents may lose their children in family court proceedings if accused of using marijuana.
- Disabled and poor recipients of public benefits still face the threat of losing their benefits for marijuana use.
- Immigrants can face deportation for marijuana use.” (ACLU, 2020)
Even when states legalize recreational use, dispensaries themselves are exclusionary, with multiple barriers to entry, purposefully preventing people of color from becoming owners. Black Americans are excluded from making profit when weed is legal (as legalization exists now) and are also profited off of when weed is illegal by incentives given to police for their arrests. (Thank you late-stage capitalism.)
Is Decriminalizing Drug Use the Answer?
Perhaps after being confronted with decades worth of data on the discriminatory practices of weed possession arrests, one may think decriminalizing marijuana is the answer or at least a starting point. Statistics of arrests due to weed possession show a slight decrease in some states that have decriminalized (ACLU, 2013). Other states have shown no change. There are far too many legal loopholes at the discretion of police and prosecutors for decriminalization to be a truly beneficial step towards reducing drug-related arrests. The discrepancy between federal and state legal status is just one of the methods used to prosecute those found with marijuana in states where it is decriminalized.
The reality is decriminalization does not go far enough to correct any injustice that the War on Drugs has created. In order to take the first steps towards repairing the harm done by discriminatory drug laws, complete legalization of drug use needs to happen on a federal level, beginning with marijuana.
The majority of arrests for marijuana possession happen in states where it is still illegal. States that have legalized report significantly lower arrests for non-violent drug possession charges (ACLU, 2020). Legalization has the power to reduce the amount of people, particularly people of color, being funneled through the prison system. Not having a drug possession charge, or even a misdemeanor drug charge, on ones record makes an unmistakable difference on ones treatment in society and outlook on life. Why ruin someones life in Louisiana for the same substance that can get delivered to your door (like fucking groceries) in Nevada? This is a blatantly clear example of how the police and the justice system purposefully selects to prosecute what is profitable to them. There is no getting around that, its a fact.
If money is the motive, there are ways for the government and government entities to collect money even after legalization. Taxes. The taxes collected through dispensaries can be used to benefit local communities and improve public safety by supporting schools, addiction recovery centers, and shelters for those experiencing homelessness. Maybe this won’t pay for the tanks and military grade tactical gear that the police so desire, but hey we have to start somewhere.
What is truly critical here though is that racial reparations and justice need to be actively pursued in conjunction with pushing for legalization. This meaning that restrictions on dispensary ownership need to be lifted and Black communities who have been harmed by discriminatory drug policies need to be the focus of reparative efforts.
“…racial justice has largely been a peripheral or incidental goal of legalization, resulting in continued racist enforcement of marijuana laws, the exclusion of people of color from participating in, leading, and building wealth from the marijuana industry, and the failure to repair the harms done to communities of color by the drug war.” (ACLU, 2020)
Legalizing marijuana use on a federal level is a critical step towards ending the racially motivated War on Drugs.