On Capitol Hill and beyond, social attitudes about marijuana are rapidly changing. According to a Gallup survey from October 2017 , 64% of Americans support legalizing marijuana — the highest percentage in the past half-century. To date, 29 states and Washington D.C. allow the use of the substance for medicinal purposes. In January 2018, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act went into effect in California, allowing for licensed cannabis businesses in select cities to begin selling recreational marijuana to those 21 years old and older. In the lifestyle space, luxury brands have proclaimed cannabis to be a promising new frontier.
While many pro-marijuana activists may see these advancements as a step in the right direction to combat the stigma surrounding the sale and use of weed, there is one glaring problem with the changing conversation surrounding legalization: Although people of color have borne the brunt of decades-long discriminatory drug policies, white people have effectively become the face of the nationwide debate about the future of marijuana in America. As many black and brown people across the nation deal with crippling criminal records, limited employment opportunities, the loss of their voting rights, and access to resources like student aid because of drug-related sentences, many white men and women have successfully capitalized on marijuana, the same substance other groups have been historically punished for. For those like myself, whose life and family and friends have been upended by the criminal-justice system, seeing stories about white entrepreneurs and their booming weed businesses dominating the news cycle in recent months is frustrating and painful.
You see, having up grown up in a low-income neighborhood in Brooklyn, I witnessed neighbors being apprehended for possession of dime bags. It was commonplace. People close to me were routinely whisked away by law enforcement for selling marijuana. It became a perennial sight. As daunting as those parts of my upbringing have been, it’s an unfortunate but common experience for many.
Countless people of color live with a constant fear of the police due to the grave effects of the War on Drugs. What started in the 1970s by President Richard Nixon as an initiative to tackle the illicit sale, distribution, and use of drugs turned into a decades-long attack on low-income minorities who were disproportionately affected by biased statues such as mandatory minimum sentences. The government-led campaign also spurred a prison boom, resulting in the United States having the highest prison population in the world, according to the Wolf Prison Brief’s database. A considerable number of those inmates are black and brown men convicted of non-violent crimes often involving marijuana, a Schedule I drug as classified by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. According to a 2016 report by the Humans Rights Watch, arrests for marijuana possession outnumbered those for all violent crimes combined.
And by comparison, while black and white people use drugs at similar rates, the report noted that black people are two-and-a-half times as likely to get arrested for it. Even after they’ve served time for a drug offense, they often have a difficult time getting their lives back on track. Since a lot of job applications require applicants to disclose their criminal history, it can be really difficult for people of color to find gainful employment since employers are often hesitant to hire ex-convicts. As a result, many go back to a life of crime for financial stability, as their options are extremely limited.
Elsewhere in the nation, while these ex-offenders are struggling to stay afloat, white entrepreneurs and their budding weed enterprises are getting positive media attention, as if the same drug they are building their businesses on hasn’t negatively impacted other people’s lives.
Despite the pervasive stereotype that paints black and brown people who use or sell marijuana as menaces and lazy individuals, there’s a myriad of reasons why they do it. Some find it’s the only available way to make money, and it’s easy to see why: With the nationwide unemployment rate for black people almost twice as much as that of white America, as shown in the most recent figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, some often see it as their only viable option to maintain their well-being and sanity.
Whatever the reason for possessing the drug, there’s no justifiable reason for the difference in treatment between black people and white people by law enforcement. It’s time for policy makers, especially those in states that have legalized recreational marijuana, to advocate for comprehensive laws and new community programs to remedy the effects legislation has had on the livelihood and well-being of people of color. Expunge and/or reduce the criminal records of those with existing marijuana convictions, and provide financial resources to those trying to find their footing after time behind bars. California, Colorado, Maryland, New Hampshire, and Oregon have started to lead the way for other states to follow suit.
If Americans are serious about developing a more progressive approach to cannabis, we must first acknowledge how the criminal-justice system continues to fail communities of color from policing to sentencing. Otherwise, we will continue to perpetuate the legacy of discriminatory and unjust policies.