Casualties of the War on Drugs

The Justice department will begin releasing inmates who committed nonviolent drug crimes at the end of this month. This decision comes off the heels of President Obama's July decision to commute the sentences of 46 drug offenders. Releases will be timed, and the former offenders will be subjected to a transitional period that includes the oversight of probation offices and, in some cases, time spent at halfway houses. The type of drug offenses vary in these cases, but certainly some of them involve the possession and sale of marijuana. Rapidly changing public opinion and government policy on the use and possession of marijuana will lead to shifts in how marijuana consumption and distribution are "policed" in the United States.

In the past two years, several states either legalized marijuana (Colorado, Oregon, Alaska, Washington) or approved it for medical use (Massachusetts, Nevada, Delaware, and New Hampshire). Of course, the state of California has been a forerunner in this policy shift, having legalized the medical use of this plant in 1996, and it presently has a fairly organized legal medical distribution network in place. California and Colorado are two sites with a booming, organized system of legal marijuana production and sale.

The growing push for the legalization of marijuana is a major shift from the War on Drugs policies of the 1980s and 1990s and the subsequent three strikes legislation. Before former Attorney General Eric Holder left office, he called for another review of how low-level, nonviolent drug offenders are being prosecuted. Given recent decisions in the Executive and Judiciary branches of government, it looks like these calls were heeded.

Despite movement towards legalizing mass or medical consumption of cannabis in a number of states, marijuana convictions vary between and sometimes within states. For instance, in New York State, marijuana is officially decriminalized, but penalties for carrying small quantities of the drug vary and can range from a maximum fine of $100 to a misdemeanor.

And not all crimes of cannabis are treated equally. Most marijuana convictions in New York take place in NYC, where young men mostly of African or Hispanic descent are targets of "stop and frisk" policies. These policies were created to reduce violent crime but instead have become an entry point for introducing nonviolent offenders into the legal system. When a young man is stopped and forced to empty his pockets, the drug is in "public view" thereby opening the possibility of arrest and an eventual misdemeanor.

Similarly, in Massachusetts, "stop and frisk" policies disproportionately affect African American and Latino men. Members of the Black Lives Matters movement have also discussed disproportionate policing of consumers of color with 2016 presidential candidates. Someone walking in Dorchester is much more likely to get stopped without any reported criminal activity than someone walking in the suburban towns like Wellesley and Sudbury, Massachusetts. While citizens of different backgrounds are calling for a change in marijuana policy, decriminalization efforts have not benefited communities of color as much as other communities.

As public opinion surrounding the medical and recreational use of marijuana continues to change and the spotlight on inequities in urban-suburban "stop and frisk" policies continues to grow, consumer convictions of drug possession will likely decrease. In addition, as more states legalize the sale and consumption of marijuana, prior offenses will get commuted or overturned. It remains to be seen if these continuing changes, like the drug policies currently in American existence, will help some and hurt others, or if all citizens will benefit as communities across the country stop waging a war against those who've used drugs.