According to a Yahoo News/Marist national survey, approximately 35 million Americans use marijuana each month. Yet while people across America celebrated 4/20 (a holiday centering on marijuana, a drug that is illegal for recreational use in 35 states), thousands upon thousands of black and brown men have and are languishing in jail due to unjust cannabis laws.
But when and why was marijuana criminalized? Marijuana was originally criminalized when immigrants from Mexico came to the US in the early 1900s. Immigrants were demonized as dangerous and disruptive, so xenophobic Americans used marijuana as a pretext to harass Mexicans, searching and detaining them.
In the 1970s, then President Richard Nixon overruled the Shafer Commission recommendation that marijuana should not be illegal and instead made it a Schedule One drug, along with heroin, LSD, and MDMA. Marijuana was deemed worse than cocaine.
However, it is no secret that Nixon's War on Drugs and the criminalization of marijuana had racist motives.
John Ehrlichmann, a top advisor to President Nixon, admitted in the 1990s that, “[The Nixon administration] knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate [these groups with drugs], and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities . . . Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
The war on drugs was not only a waste of time and money, with America spending over $51 billion annually on the war on drugs (Drug Policy Alliance), but also targeted low-income neighborhoods affected by the crack epidemic. This meant that the police were giving out far more severe punishments for drugs that were more likely to be possessed by the poor. Drugs were weaponized by the government to demonize low-income and primarily POC neighborhoods.
And that brings us to today. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), although rates of cannabis use are roughly equivalent among Black and white people, African Americans are over three times more likely to be arrested or cited for cannabis possession.
Furthermore, according to FBI data, half of all drug arrests are for cannabis; of those, a staggering 92% are for possession rather than intent to sell. Legalizing marijuana could help put an end to America’s racially-motivated mass incarceration issue and be the first step towards restoring equity to those whose lives have been destroyed by these restrictive and inequitable policies.
The negative impact of a cannabis conviction does not end when a jail sentence has been completed. Cannabis convictions make it more difficult to get housing, jobs, loans, and an education. Since the enforcement of cannabis laws is unequal, Latinx and African Americans are disproportionately affected by this stigmatization, and, as a result, are more likely to reoffend and continue this vicious cycle. This made marijuana a brick in the wall of systemic racism that prevents people of color from attaining economic equality.
As a result of the criminalization of marijuana and disproportionate policing of minority communities, there have been generations of families impacted by incarceration.
Although states like California have made the first steps in decriminalizing marijuana, possession of cannabis is still a federal crime and people of color often fall victim to these long-standing discriminatory laws. Now that the racially biased motives of the War on Drugs and the disportionate impact of these cannabis laws have been exposed, one could hope that people will grow more socially conscious to protest for the legalization of marijuana and the release of those in jail who have minor drug offenses.