I was 12 years old the first time I was arrested for weed. I was handcuffed and taken to juvenile detention, the start of a life caught in the web of the carceral system. Every moment since then, I have been either incarcerated or on probation.
I am now 41, doing a 45-year prison sentence for taking another human’s life. Every morning in prison, I watch CNBC’s “The Exchange” and marvel at the talking heads discussing the money to be made in cannabis stocks. I take full responsibility for my actions that landed me in prison — but I often think about how differently my life might have gone had weed been legal in Washington state when I was a kid, as it is now.
My introduction to weed came when I was 6 years old. A family friend who was watching me decided I was too hyper and gave me a bong hit. When I was 11, older dealers in the neighborhood asked me to help them run drugs. My family was very poor, and I wanted to fit in, so I was willing to do whatever they wanted. It was around this time that I started smoking weed and drinking alcohol regularly.
I grew up during the height of the war on drugs, which led to an explosion in the number of people arrested for drug offenses. Between 1980 and 2019, the number of Americans imprisoned for drug offenses swelled from 40,900 people to 430,926. On the day of my arrest, I was walking home from school with my best friend. A cop spotted us, pulled his car to the side of the road to block our path, and said he needed to talk to us.
We weren’t doing anything wrong, but my friend was Black, and we lived in a low-income, over-policed neighborhood. Interactions with cops weren’t unusual, even at our age. I hated cops at the time because I never saw them help people in my community. I only saw harassment, abuse and arrests.
“Where are you two coming from?” he asked.
“School would be the obvious place,” I shot back, like a smartass.
He didn’t appreciate my comment. He asked if we had anything on us that we shouldn’t. It was then that I remembered I had weed stashed in my sock ― packed away in a little transparent blue plastic box.
“Nope,” we both said with conviction.
But he clearly didn’t believe us. As he instructed us to empty our pockets out onto the hood of his car, another police officer showed up and separated me from my friend.
My friend was put in the back of the police car, and the officer who questioned him walked over to whisper something to the other officer, who nodded and looked down at my ankle.
“You sure you put everything on the hood, son?” he asked.
“Yep,” I said without blinking. I was good at lying to authority figures, or at least I thought I was.
“You sure there isn’t something in your sock? Because your buddy said you have some marijuana on your person,” he said.
I just stared at the cop. I knew I was in trouble. He told me to place my hands on his hood and he began to pat me down. He quickly found the weed and placed me under arrest.
I spent a couple of weeks in juvie before I was released on probation. Spending time in juvie caused me to fall behind in school, and pretty soon, it felt impossible to catch up. I wound up back in juvie after skipping school — a violation of the conditions of my probation.
The cycle began. The more time I spent in juvie, the more I hung out with people who were getting in trouble with the law. By the time I was 14, I had been arrested more than a dozen times and I dropped out of school. By the age of 18, I had spent three and a half years incarcerated, all for parole violations or drug and theft-related crimes.
College and most traditional career paths felt out of reach for me, so I made my living as a drug dealer, as I had learned from people older than me. When I was 22, continuing on the path I’d been walking since that early brush with incarceration, I committed a drug robbery that led to someone losing their life ― the very reason I’m in prison today.
“By the time I was 14, I had been arrested more than a dozen times and I dropped out of school. By the age of 18, I had spent three and a half years incarcerated, all for parole violations or drug and theft-related crimes.”
I am not sharing my experiences in an attempt to absolve myself of responsibility for taking another human’s life. Rather, I want to acknowledge that incarcerating kids affects their development and has public safety implications.
There is extensive research documenting how kids who are incarcerated are more likely to reoffend than those who receive alternative interventions like counseling or drug treatment. I know that to be true from experience.
My story is not unique. Nearly everyone I know in prison was introduced to the criminal justice system through a drug offense. The criminalization of weed has disproportionately harmed Black people, who are 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested for possession, the American Civil Liberties Union found in a 2020 report.
I realize that even when weed is legalized, it can still be illegal for people under a certain age to possess and consume it — as is the case with alcohol. Perhaps I still would have been arrested that time when I was 12. But the criminalization of weed and the war on drugs put a target on my low-income community. It became a pretext for the cops to constantly stop and search us. And although kids can get in trouble for underage drinking, they are rarely arrested and sent to juvie for the offense.
Some jurisdictions that have legalized weed have taken steps to address the harm of past criminalization by expunging prior convictions and prioritizing people with weed convictions for cannabis retail licenses. But those efforts are piecemeal, and even well-intentioned policies often fail to reckon with the long-term harm caused by incarceration. Even with priority access to licenses, many who have spent time in prison — where wages are nearly nonexistent — don’t have enough money to get a business off the ground.
We need to look back on the damage the criminalization of weed has done to impoverished communities like mine. Many of us suffered irreparable damage. Ripped from our homes as children, we were forced to experience the carceral system and the traumas it inflicts on those inside. Childhoods cannot be replaced, and even those who are “free” might never fully recover from the experience of being incarcerated at such a young age. And many of us are still fighting to get out.
Christopher Blackwell, 41, is serving a 45-year prison sentence in Washington state. He co-founded Look 2 Justice, an organization that provides civic education to system-impacted communities and actively works to pass sentence and policy reform legislation. He is currently working toward publishing a book on solitary confinement. His writing has been published by The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, HuffPost, Insider, and many more outlets. You can follow him and be in touch on Twitter at @chriswblackwell.