Shifting Views On Marijuana Highlight Just How Differently People Of Color Are Impacted By Drug Laws

Photo Credit: John Vizcaino

As views shift on the decriminalization of marijuana, and current and former lawmakers question existing drug laws, the fact that people of color, particularly from low-income communities, are still suffering consequences from decades-old marijuana laws is deeply concerning, critics say.

Former House speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) was praised for pivoting from being “unalterably opposed” to decriminalizing marijuana while in Congress to now joining a board of directors for a cannabis company focused on rolling back federal regulations.

But the reception that the white, Republican male received for his shift in views is quite different from how other Americans have been treated in regard to the drug. And some Democratic lawmakers took note.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) tweeted earlier this week:

“More than 2 million in jail, mostly black and brown, many for holding a small amount of marijuana. The drug war is a fiscal and moral failure but before moving on, we must stop imprisoning people of color for something that is effectively no longer illegal in fancy towns.”

According to Quartz, nearly half a million people were arrested for selling weed while Boehner was speaker from 2011 to 2015. But now Boehner thinks decriminalizing the drug is helpful in assisting veterans, especially in the midst of an opioid epidemic.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced Friday that he was also changing his stance on marijuana. He said that his bill to decriminalize it will “inject real dollars into minority and women-owned businesses to ensure those disproportionately affected by marijuana criminalization can benefit from this new economy.”

Attitudes have obviously evolved on marijuana on a national level. Washington, D.C., and nine states have legalized recreational use of the drug. And many others allow some sort of medical use. Legal marijuana sales exceeded $9 billion in 2017, according to an industry estimate.

The Washington Post previously reported that polls show that more than 60 percent of Americans favor legalizing marijuana completely and more than 90 percent are in favor of legal medical use.

But not all Americans have benefited from this shift in attitude. Some are still dealing with the consequences of strict drug laws.

Sen. Kirsten Gillbrand (D-N.Y.) noted the disparity in how marijuana laws affect people of color, as well as low-income people.

“Black and Latino people in NYC are arrested at TEN times the rate of white people for virtually the same rate of marijuana usage. Along with Cory Booker and Sen. Sanders, I’m cosponsoring a bill to legalize and decriminalize marijuana. Raise your voices and join us in this fight,” she tweeted.

A Drug Policy Alliance report showed that arrests for offenses such as possession under the age of 21, public consumption and other still-illegal actions related to marijuana are higher for black people. Vox reported that several studies have found that even in places where pot is legal, black people are still more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses compared to white people.

In Colorado, according to a 2016 public safety report, the marijuana arrest rate for whites and Hispanics is comparable, but the marijuana arrest rate for African Americans is almost three times that of whites.

The relationship between the disproportionately high incarceration rate of black people and the role race plays in this country’s history with drug decriminalization is likely to continue to be a conversation as Americans revisit U.S. drug laws. How the opioid epidemic has ravaged rural, mostly white areas has captured national attention. But how people of color in urban areas have been treated by this country’s drug laws appears to be a lesser concern right now.

Vincent M. Southerland, executive director of the Center on Race, Inequality and the Law at New York University, wrote in the New York Times:

“Too many people have been deported, made homeless, lost financial aid, levied fines and fees or had their children taken away from them because of marijuana arrests.

“White entrepreneurs in the marijuana industry, and the lawmakers who help it flourish, should highlight the racist history of marijuana prohibition and acknowledge its continuing impact.”