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The Illegality of Marijuana Stems from Deep Rooted Racism in the US
The Mexican Revolution of the 1910s prompted an influx of Mexican immigration to the U.S. These immigrants brought their customs and culture, including the use of marijuana for its medicinal and calming properties. Like many traditions associated with immigrant groups, the white majority did not approve.
In the early 1900s, a Texas state senator stated that “[a]ll Mexicans are crazy, and this [marijuana] is what makes them crazy.” Southern legislatures also feared that marijuana would prompt African Americans to become violent. By 1937, lawmakers banned marijuana in all states. According to Steven Bender, a researcher with the Seattle University School of Law, “Marijuana criminalization, as with cocaine and opiates, stemmed from racialized perceptions of users of color as threatening public safety and welfare.”
Now, even as the majority of states have decriminalized or legalized marijuana use, the U.S. criminal justice system still disproportionately targets people of color. Consequently, legalizing marijuana would stike an important blow against racism.
All races use marijuana at similar frequencies, yet black Americans were almost four times more likely than white Americans to be arrested for marijuana possession between 2001 and 2010. Although the FBI’s uniform crime report doesn’t include data about Latinx drug arrests, existing data suggests that the rates are higher than those of white people.
Meanwhile, the cannabis industry is booming; it was worth almost $10 billion in 2018 and is growing rapidly. However, white people account for 81% of cannabis business owners, compared to 5.7% Latinx and 4.3% African American. These statistics align with national averages, yet remain disproportionate, considering that Latinx and African American people make up 18.3% and 13.4% of the U.S. population, respectively.
When asked why white men dominate the cannabis industry, Chanda Macias, a female African American CEO of the National Holistic Healing Center and Women Grow, said, “[Black men] don’t want to participate [in the cannabis industry] because they’re fearful of their life, rightfully so.”
While one group, primarily wealthy white men, profits off of the industry, another one, primarily underprivileged black men, is punished. Even low-level drug offenses carry lifetime sentences. Felons reentering the workforce are 50% less likely than an otherwise equally qualified candidate to receive a call back interview for entry-level jobs, according to Devah Pager’s study with Northwestern University. In 48 states, felons either lose the right to vote indefinitely or for varying periods of time after incarceration.
Legalizing marijuana also financially benefits the government and taxpayers. A 2010 study published by the Harvard Department of Economics found that legalizing marijuana would save the government approximately $13.7 billion per year in law enforcement costs. If taxed at a rate comparable to alcohol and tobacco, marijuana would generate $6.4 billion in annual tax revenue.
Many studies, including one by Dr. Kevin P. Hill in the JAMA Clinical Crossroads journal, have found that marijuana significantly reduced physical pain and symptoms of some neurological disorders. The risks of marijuana seem to be equal to or less than those of tobacco, nicotine, or alcohol, according to a study by Teri More with the Reason Foundation.
However, many states continue to perpetuate an unjust criminal justice system based on misinformation and stereotypes. Why?
The “War on Drugs,” launched in 1971, exponentially increased the government’s use of a punitive criminal justice system regarding drugs, which Richard Nixon claimed to be “public enemy number one.” Now, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world; U.S. prisoners account for 25% of the world’s prison population, compared to the U.S. only comprising 5% of the world’s total population.
A system of mass incarceration begs the question of what to do with millions of inmates. The government answered by yielding control of some prisons to private companies and putting the inmates to work. Lan Cao, in the NYU Review of Law and Social Change, writes, “Many companies have responded to calls to stop the outsourcing of American jobs by contracting with U.S. prisons to hire prisoners. In so doing, companies keep production costs low, access a range of tax benefits, and promote their products as ‘Made in the USA.’ However, prisoners receive less than minimum wage, if they’re paid at all.”
It’s no secret that large corporations influence U.S. policy. Fair prison wages would cost corporations like Walmart, Victoria’s Secret, Whole Foods, Target, AT&T, Microsoft, and many more that convict lease. Additionally, corporations that own private prisons receive stipends from the government. More prisoners means higher stipends.
Private prisons contributed $1.6 million to candidates during the 2016 election cycle. 92% of the money from the companies contributing most benefited Republicans. These contributions worked; the 2016 election cycle flipped the executive branch to be Republican and maintained Republican control of the legislative branch. Republicans used this power to flip the judicial branch as well. Traditionally, the Republican platform has stood against marijuana legalization.
In effect, these private prisons and large corporations are able to sway laws in their favor. By keeping marijuana illegal, the prison population grows and so do profits, though higher government stipends and easily accessible cheap labor. Consequently, these injustices are ingrained into the U.S. criminal justice system.
A study by the Drug Policy Alliance shows that even after legalization, racial disparities persist, saying, “Marijuana legalization can dramatically reduce the number of Black and Latinx individuals arrested and convicted for marijuana offenses, but it cannot change police practices.” Repairing inequalities in a system that was built on inequality requires massive reform.
To start, legalize recreational marijuana use. Expunge marijuana-related offenses. Abolish private prisons. Pay inmates at least minimum wage when working. Hire a diverse law enforcement body without racial bias.
Macias says, “Legalization [of marijuana] is about reversing the effects of racism.”