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Marijuana Legalization Without Racial Justice Risks Being Another Extension of White Privilege

Despite the fact that people of different races use and sell marijuana at roughly equal rates, most marijuana arrests are of black or Latino men.
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By Bill Piper
The war on marijuana appears to be coming to an end. Twenty-five states have so far legalized marijuana for medical use, four of which have decided to regulate it for adult use like alcohol. Seven or more states could vote on marijuana reform in November; California definitely will.

This is good news because it reduces marijuana arrests and the lifetime consequences that come with them. But the emerging legal marijuana industry appears to be mostly white, and legalization campaigns often ignore issues of importance to communities of color. The industry, the reform movement and policymakers need to focus more on racial justice -- and consumers and activists should demand action and hold us all accountable. Marijuana legalization without racial justice risks being an extension of white privilege.

Despite the fact that people of different races use and sell marijuana at roughly equal rates, most marijuana arrests are of black or Latino men. In Chicago, the ratio of black to white arrests for marijuana possession is 15 to 1. In Connecticut, 5 to 1; in Wisconsin, 10 to 1. And even though young white people in New York City use marijuana at higher rates, nearly 85 percent of the people arrested for marijuana possession there are black or Latino.

Looking at national rates, a 2013 ACLU report, "The War on Marijuana in Black and White," found that black people are almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite equal usage with white people.

These disparities have severe and long-lasting consequences. Once charged with a marijuana offense, people can be legally discriminated against in housing and employment, denied student loans, denied public housing and denied public assistance. If their marijuana law violation was a felony, they can even be denied the right to vote -- in some states for life.

It's no coincidence that the War on Drugs was launched right after the civil rights movement made major gains. President Richard Nixon wanted to build a system that could destroy black communities (and hippies). In Nixon's words (paraphrased by one of his staffers), "the whole problem is really the blacks, the key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to."

In many parts of the US, a black man can't walk around his own neighborhood without being stopped by the police, told to line up against the wall and randomly frisked. Police are often looking for marijuana or other drugs, although in most instances they don't find any. The war on marijuana has stripped people of color of their civil rights. Police kick in doors. They shoot young black men. They point machine guns at children. Shoot pets. Throw people on the ground, handcuff them and take them to jail. They break up families, throwing kids in foster care because one or more of their parents or guardians consumed marijuana. The war on marijuana is often the reason that many young men of color come into contact with police in the first place, increasing the likelihood of future involvement and discrimination and death.

For many Americans, particularly young men of color, a marijuana offense is a gateway -- the only way in which marijuana can accurately be described as a "gateway drug" -- to a lifetime of civil and criminal punishment, fines, legal debt, unemployment and constant surveillance and harassment by police and other agents of the state.

This context needs to be kept in mind, not just when legalization is debated, not just when people campaign for legalization, but when legalization measures are written. When regulations on the industry are crafted. When people are choosing who to buy from, who to invest in.

Racial justice isn't just about greater diversity, although greater diversity would be nice. It's about structural and institutional change. Laws prohibiting people with felony convictions from getting marijuana licenses should be eliminated. It should be much less difficult to get a marijuana license than it is now in many jurisdictions. Laws requiring people to put down tens of thousands of dollars just to apply for a license are also discriminatory and arguably racist. A significant part of tax revenue that is generated from marijuana sales should be invested in rebuilding the communities destroyed by decades of war and helping those who have been impacted get the education and training they need to be business owners. Reparative measures are long overdue.

There is some movement. More and more people are saying enough is enough, the industry and the reform movement need to support racial justice (notably, these voices are usually people of color, and often women of color). Organizations have formed to represent the interests of women and people of color, such as Women Grow, the Minority Cannabis Business Association, and the Cannabis Cultural Association. Some largely white marijuana industry entities, including ArcView and the National Cannabis Industry Association, have stepped up a bit in support of greater inclusion.

Policymakers in Oakland, California recently passed an equity amendment prioritizing medical marijuana licenses for people who have been arrested for drugs or live in a highly policed, oppressed community. In Ohio legislators included a provision in the recently passed medical marijuana law ensuring that 15 percent of licenses go to people of color. Maryland's medical marijuana law requires the regulatory agency to actively seek racial, ethnic and geographic diversity when licensing, and requires it to encourage applicants who qualify as a minority business enterprise.

The Massachusetts legalization initiative on the November ballot would require the state to develop procedures and policies that promote and encourage full participation from communities disproportionately harmed by marijuana prohibition. Portland, Oregon voters will vote in November on an initiative that would expunge people's criminal records and use marijuana tax revenue to provide support for neighborhood small businesses, with a priority for businesses owned by women and people of color.

The most racial-justice-oriented marijuana measure ever is the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA), which California voters will decide on in November. AUMA reduces and in many cases eliminates criminal penalties for marijuana offenses. It reduces barriers to entry to the legal market. And it drives hundreds of millions of dollars in investments to low-income communities that have been most negatively impacted by the drug war. If approved, AUMA will set up a process for letting people currently incarcerated for marijuana offenses out of prison and expunging their records.

Unfortunately, for every marijuana measure that has a racial justice component, there are a bunch more that don't. Even worse, industry players sometimes lobby to get new laws and initiatives to include a range of crony capitalist provisions that reduce competition and exclude people from the market.

The marijuana reform movement continues to mostly ignore issues of importance to people of color, such as stop-and-frisk, racial profiling, deportation for marijuana offenses and rising racial disparities in post-legalization arrest rates. It is not enough to simply legalize marijuana or ease criminal penalties. Marijuana reformers and policymakers should embrace fairness and civil rights.

Those of us with privilege and access should use it to amplify the voices of people of color and hold the industry and movement accountable. To be good allies and fight for equity and inclusion. To call out policy makers and groups that ignore racial justice when drafting proposed laws.

If you're a marijuana consumer, don't buy weed from companies that lack diversity, ignore equity and short-change the drug policy reform movement. Such people need to pay a price, and a reckoning is long overdue.

The lack of focus on racial justice in cannabis reform is widespread. It is a problem that is movement and industry-wide. My own organization, Drug Policy Alliance, could be better. I could be better. A lot more needs to be done by all. We can start by changing the white, conveniently narrow, definition of marijuana reform to include issues affecting the communities harmed by the war on marijuana the most. Advocates and policymakers should make these issues the foundation of all reforms: We need to fight not just for legalization but for racial justice as well.

Bill Piper is Senior Director of National Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. You can follow him on Twitter: @billjpiper.

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