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Marijuana Legalization Is a Racial Justice Issue

Marijuana plant
Marijuana plant
Charlotte Resing,
Policy Analyst,
Washington Legislative Office
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April 20, 2019

Marijuana has been a key driver of mass criminalization in this country and hundreds of thousands of people, the majority of whom are Black or Latinx, have their lives impacted by a marijuana arrest each year. But the tide is turning against the remnants of a drug war targeted at Black and Brown people that was never meant to increase public safety in the first place. Legalization is an important step towards ending the war on drugs, and it cannot come soon enough.

Legalizing marijuana must come with expungement, with reinvestment in the communities most harmed by enforcement, with limitations on how police can interact with people who they suspect of a marijuana offense, with legal nonpublic spaces for smoking marijuana for those who cannot smoke in their residence, with a prohibition on deportation for people with marijuana convictions, and with full inclusion of those most impacted by criminalization of marijuana in the new marijuana industry.

Currently, nine states and the District of Columbia allow for recreational use among adults, while 31 states allow for medical use of marijuana. The laws reflect growing public support. Two out of three Americans are in favor of legalization, which has majority support in all age groups and political affiliations.

While progress in reforming our nation’s drug laws is vital, we must remember that if we legalize without righting the wrongs of past marijuana enforcement, we risk reinforcing the decades of disproportionate harm communities of color have faced and endured. People in the United States use and sell marijuana at roughly the same rate regardless of their race, yet a Black person is almost four times more likely than a white person to be arrested for marijuana possession nationwide. In addition, roughly 13,000 people were deported or separated from their communities and families in 2013 alone for drug-related offenses.

While it is not a panacea for past harms, thoughtful legalization can help us forge a more equitable future.

Today, overcriminalized communities continue to suffer from the fallout our nation’s drug laws, even in states that have legalized marijuana and seen dramatic drops in the number of people arrested for marijuana crimes. That’s because legalization has not eradicated the indefensible rate at which Black and Latinx people are arrested for marijuana offenses in these states. In fact, many states have seen an even steeper rise in the percentage of Black and Latinx people having their lives impacted by a marijuana arrest. Two years after decriminalization in the nation’s capital, a Black person is 11 times more likely than a white person to be arrested for public use of marijuana.

This is one of the main reasons enforcement is key to reform. When it comes to drug law reform, policing, which more rightly can be titled over-policing, is at the headwaters of the injustices communities of color suffer. We must address, combat, and eventually eliminate discriminatory policing practices and the structural racial bias at every step of our criminal legal system. Legalization measures must have equity as a vital component to avoid continuing to harm certain and to address the years of hardship and stigma that criminalizing marijuana has wrought.

Along with the harm of incarceration and conviction, a simple marijuana charge has a negative ripple effect.

Having a marijuana conviction on your record can make it difficult to secure and maintain employment, housing, or secure government assistance for the rest of your life. This is why clearing people’s records of marijuana convictions is a necessary addition to any legalization measure. If we believe that marijuana is not worthy of criminal intervention, then it is only right we stop the suffering inflicted on people by a marijuana prosecution. Especially since we know this disproportionately falls on the shoulders, and families, of low-income communities and communities of color.

Such efforts to extend racial justice must explicitly be tied to a program of economic justice.

People who have been harmed by the enforcement of marijuana must have a place in the bourgeoning marketplace created by legalization. Indeed, any legalization bill should include provisions that enable people who have struggled to find employment due to a marijuana conviction to participate meaningfully in the marijuana industry. Excluding people directly impacted by marijuana criminalization from the industry further entrenches the outsized impact that the war on drugs has had on communities of color.

If we legalize without mindfulness of the full ecosystem of the criminal legal system and how it impacts people, then corporate and industry-backed legalization efforts will lead us away from what is right and just. That is why we must support legalization legislation that truly help roll back overcriminalization, end the failed war on drugs once and for all, and usher in a more equitable future through drug law reform nationwide.

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