Marijuana Legalization Must Also Focus on Racial Justice

marijuana racial justice

The following excerpts are from “Marijuana Legalization Without Racial Justice Risks   Being Another Extension of White Privilege” by Bill Piper, Senior Director of National Affairs for the Drug Police Alliance.  Written before last November’s elections, Piper argues marijuana legislation must also include racial justice- which has not been part of the marijuana legalization discussion.

“The trend to legalize marijuana for medical use is good news because it reduces marijuana arrests and the lifetime consequences that follow.  But the emerging legal marijuana industry, which is mostly white, and other 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 and 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 whites in New York City use marijuana at higher rates, nearly 85% of those arrested for marijuana possession are Black or Latino.

The emerging legal marijuana industry, which is mostly white, and other legalization campaigns, often ignore issues of importance to communities of color.

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 public assistance.  If the marijuana law violation was a felony, they can even be denied the right to vote—in some states for life.

More and more, however, people are saying enough is enough, the industry and reform movement need to support racial justice and must also focus on addressing the concerns of women as well.

Last year, policymakers in Oakland passed an equity amendment prioritizing medical marijuana licenses for people who have been arrested for drugs or live in a highly policed or oppressed community.  In Ohio, legislators included a provision in a new medical marijuana law ensuring that 15% 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 to apply as a minority business enterprise.

The most racial-justice oriented marijuana measure is the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA) which California voters passed last November.  AUMA reduces and, in many cases, eliminates criminal penalties for marijuana offenses.  It reduces barriers to enter the legal market and directs hundreds of millions of dollars in investments to low-income communities that were most negatively impacted by the war on drugs.  AUMA sets up a process for letting many people currently incarcerated for marijuana offenses out of prison and expunging their records.

Unfortunately, for every marijuana measure that has a racial justice component, many more don’t.  Even worse, industry players sometimes lobby to get new laws and initiatives that represent their interests not the communities they claim to serve.  For young men of color, particularly, a marijuana offense is a gateway—marijuana is a “gateway drug”—to a lifetime of civil and criminal punishment, fines, legal debt, unemployment and constant surveillance and harassment by law enforcement officials.

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

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 amplify the voices of people of color and hold the industry and reform movement accountable–to be real allies and fight for equity and inclusion and call out policymakers and groups that ignore racial justice when drafting proposed laws. If you are a marijuana consumer, don’t buy weed from companies that lack diversity, ignore equity or downplay 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 the cannabis reform movement remains widespread, both in the reform movement, and industry-wide.  In fact, my own organization, Drug Policy Alliance, could do better.  I could do 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 the most by the war on marijuana.  Advocates and policymakers should make these issues the foundation of all reforms.  Therefore, we need to fight not just for legalization, but for racial justice as well.

Larry Aubry
The Sentinel

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