I am a Christian pastor in New Jersey and support the legalization of cannabis in service of growing justice and democracy for all. Marked by alarming racial disparities, the state of New Jersey incarcerates black residents at 12 times the rate of its white residents — a symptom of the national drug war and the intersectional practices of policing poverty and criminalizing non-white communities. However, New Jersey now appears to be next to navigate the economically enterprising possibilities of cannabis legalization.
Marijuana legalization offers us a platform to re-engage our history conscientiously — a platform to acknowledge how the specter of historical discrimination haunts American policing and the judicial process. A pillar in the American incarceration boom, the drug war lives as the political-economic descendant of the chattel economy and Jim Crow democracy.
Week after week of mounting the pulpit to expand minds and fuel life, I witness new empty seats in the sanctuary as people with dynamic potential, intense business acumen and deeply anchored faith disappear into the legal suction machine powered by white fear, middle-class obliviousness and aggressively biased policing.
In New Jersey alone, the practice of arresting more than 24,000 people annually for marijuana possession costs taxpayers more than $140 million. Although black and white communities use marijuana at comparable rates, Black residents are three times more vulnerable to arrest for cannabis violations than white residents. Borrowing the ageless wisdom of James Baldwin, I declare, “the law, as it operates, is guilty, and that the prisoners, therefore, are all unjustly imprisoned.” American punitive justice — justice devoid of love — is democratically erosive and morally anemic as human life becomes corporately privatized, institutionally stigmatized and politically controlled.
Marijuana prohibition had little to do with methods of public safety and more clearly involved realizing a racist myth of public purity — the removal and erasure of non-white bodies. Decades before Nixon declared a war on drugs, Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, framed marijuana prohibition in unambiguously racist terms: “The primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races,” namely black, Mexican and Filipino Americans. In the 1930s, he further added, “Marihuana influences Negroes to look at white people in the eye, step on white men’s shadows and look at a white woman twice.”
Anslinger’s rationale exposes the ways marijuana prohibition, like the broader war of drugs, advanced the criminalization of certain races and the racialization of certain crimes.
While the legalization of adult-use of cannabis in nine states and D.C. show evidence of economic profitability, few states temper their capitalist impetus with dimensions of racial and economic justice. Yet we live under the moral weight of racial justice, which resists the treatment of non-white and low-income communities as political piñatas and economic pariahs in a new economy. Legislation rooted in racial equity fertilizes democratic futures for lives all but foreclosed by a legal system sabotaged against their interests and wellbeing in the Garden State.
A call for reparative justice trains our gaze to reimagine an economy and democracy safe for bodies and lives ravaged by decades of state-sponsored terror in the form of over-policing and judicial iniquity. It is criminal and tragically irreconcilable for a system that created hundreds of thousands of poor people with criminal records through marijuana laws to now create dozens of millionaires with franchising power without repairing the harm to the former.
With prophetic imagination, people of faith and freedom-loving people of conscience — a creative multi-faith, multi-racial and multi-class network — denounce any legislative option positioned to perpetuate structural violence against non-white and poor communities. The moral imperative to end marijuana prohibition transcends anticipated tax windfalls and projected revenue.
To grow justice, cannabis legalization must, at least, include: Immediate release from prison and automatic record expungement for marijuana-related offenses; implementing incentives and provisions for minority cannabis-entrepreneurs; establishing a Community Reinvestment Trust with community oversight; and employment opportunities in the legalized cannabis industry, targeting formerly-incarcerated individuals and hiring in neighborhoods with historically high arrest rates.
The future of democracy depends on the thorough practice of restorative justice for victims of failed draconian drug policies. A new America — one rooted in the marriage of love, power, and justice — repurposes the human, physical, and fiscal resources we waste on marijuana prohibition for transformative, asset-based projects dedicated to supporting education equity, the sanctity of all family arrangements and economic development in communities stripped bare by current public policies.