The legalization of recreational and/or medicinal marijuana is on the ballot Tuesday in California, Nevada, Arizona, Arkansas, Montana, North Dakota, Florida, Massachusetts and Maine. If you live in one of those states, I strongly encourage you to vote in support of legalization. And, it is important to remember that legalizing recreational pot Is a necessary step in ending the War on Drugs, which has been called a failure at every level. The War on Drugs was really a war on the demand side of the drug trade, with over 90 percent of arrests made for possession of drugs rather than trafficking. The majority of those arrested are poor people and/or people of color. A first class nation should not be dragging poor, black and brown people off the street and throwing them in jail for possession of a drug like marijuana, which has many medicinal benefits and is less harmful than the fully legal substance, alcohol. Most people recognize the medicinal benefits of cannabis. But, ignoring the role drug possession busts have played in society is to not fully understand the issue. Medicinal marijuana is not enough, every state considering legalizing recreational pot should do so and the federal government should follow.
People of color are estimated to make up 33 percent of black market drug distributors nationwide, but are 57 percent of state and 75 percent of federal drug offenders. Fifty-two percent of all drug arrests in 2010 were for marijuana. And, while Black and White people are equally as likely to use marijuana, Black people are four times more likely to get arrested for possession. In Louisiana, people are regularly imprisoned for 15 years for possession of two joints. We are spending billions of dollars each year to lock up Black and Brown people disproportionately, which has a tremendous impact on the economy. Not only should you account for the money spent to pursue marijuana criminals, the legal costs and the cost of keeping those people as prisoners, but also the cost to the economy and society of locking up a potentially productive citizen.
California has a particularly interesting aspect to their weed legalization law- ballot proposition 64. Not only will the law legalize marijuana use, sales and growth but it will also allow people arrested for pot possession and distribution to petition for their release and to have their records cleared. This will allow those with pot charges to move on with their lives, gain employment and even work in the legal marijuana business- greatly reducing mass incarceration. So far, states that have legalized the marijuana industry have prohibited drug criminals from participating in the legal pot business- a gross miscalculation. Who better to work in the legal marijuana industry than the people that have the most experience? There have been great strides made in encouraging women to enter the legal marijuana industry, but involvement by people of color lags far behind. Only 1 percent of dispensaries nationwide are owned by people of color. California’s law will immediately add diversity to the legal cannabis industry, making former black market operators tax paying, fully contributing members of society. Every state that legalizes should replicate that provision of California’s proposition.
In every state in question, the laws proposed to legalize marijuana limit its use to those twenty-one and over. And, while many anti-pot crusaders will tell you that teen use of marijuana will skyrocket if the substance is legalized, the CDC recently found that marijuana use is declining among teens and rising rapidly among senior citizens. Parents are more likely to imbibe than their kids. And use among grandparents rose by 455 percent since 2002. We should not be asking what will happen with our teens as marijuana is legalized, we should be asking what is going to happen with our seniors.
The evidence is clear. The War on Drugs is a huge failure. We have spent years putting people in jail and ruining people’s lives for possession of a plant that grows naturally in the ground and Is less subject to abuse than many substances that are legal and we use every day. We must aspire to be a better nation than that. Many countries like Portugal and Uruguay are now leading the world in drug policy while the United States lags behind- still treating drug use and addiction like a criminal justice issue rather than a public health issue. Our lawmakers will not lead the way, which is why legalization has been left to state-wide ballot initiatives. We must send a clear message to our leaders that the War on Drugs must come to an end. Let us start by legalizing marijuana.