Marijuana has been a driving force of mass criminalization in this country, and hundreds of thousands of people have been incarcerated because of a drug war targeted at Black and Brown people that were never meant to increase public safety in the first place.
In 1970, President Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act, classifying Cannabis as a schedule 1 drug, reserved for the most dangerous class of drugs.
John Ehrlichman, counsel to Nixon and assistant to the president for domestic affairs, admitted years later, “You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities, We could arrest their leaders. Raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Ehrlichman’s comment was the first time the intentions of the war on drugs became clear, characterizing it as a way for Nixon to gain political advancements.
“Cannabis decriminalization is a racial justice issue.”
According to the ACLU’s analysis, marijuana arrests now account for over half of all drug arrests in the United States. People of color are four times more likely than Whites to be arrested for marijuana possession.
Today, over-criminalized communities continue to suffer from the fallout of our nation’s drug laws.
The hundreds of thousands of people in disproportionately affected black communities have suffered in more ways than one; their arrests stay on their records for years, making it difficult to find jobs and crippling their prospects for loans and housing benefits.
“Black Americans are more likely to be arrested, convicted, and given lengthier prison sentences than white Americans.”
Although White and Black Americans use Cannabis at roughly the same rate, Black Americans are more likely to be arrested than white people in every state, including those who have legalized Cannabis.
“Instead of spending billions of dollars every year enforcing obsolete laws, we could be investing this money into building better communities and education systems across the country.”
Not only are marijuana arrests destructive to communities, but they are also causing extreme economic damage to the U.S. According to Insider’s research, Police dedicate around $3.6 billion annually enforcing possession laws and arrest roughly 820,000 people per year on marijuana possession. Defending a marijuana arrest can cost anywhere between $2,000 and $20,000.
While we spend billions of dollars each year attempting to end the use of Cannabis, the country’s efforts have embarrassingly failed. According to The Sacramento Bee’s survey, more than half of American adults have tried marijuana at least once in their lives; nearly 55 million of them, or 22 percent, currently use it. Close to 35 million are what the survey calls “regular users,” or people who use marijuana at least once or twice a month.
The racial disparities that exist within cannabis criminalization cannot persist within opportunities to benefit from its legalization.
While many states have begun decriminalizing marijuana through legalization, we still need to look at exactly how to legalize it.
According to a study by Arcview Market Research and BDS Analytics, the top tier of the legal marijuana industry is run almost exclusively by white men. Retailers, dispensaries, and pharmacies nationwide are expected to take in nearly $45 billion in revenue in 2024; this includes over-the-counter items like CBD ointments and supplements.
So who benefits from this? White men and large companies.
Large companies are commonly favored over small businesses by the regulatory schemes developed in many states. Small companies trying to break into the industry face an uphill battle. To level the playing field, BIPOC needs to be allowed to enter. This is a racial and economic issue. If we’re going to make the rich richer, isolate small businesses and ignore victims of the war on drugs, should we even legalize weed?
We can’t just legalize weed. We must decriminalize it.
We must face the repercussions of our actions. We must free and support the victims who have been disproportionately affected by our nation’s war on drugs.