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Why Legalizing Weed Doesn’t Help Minorities—and How It Can

Current legislation on cannabis treats it as an exceptional, and therefore acceptable, drug. There’s reason to worry this approach could hurt minorities and poor people—and there are ways to fix it too.

By Stacey McKenna


A medicinal marijuana user with a joint at the Berkeley Patients Group in Berkeley, California, March 25th, 2010. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In November, just four years after Colorado legalized marijuana, Denver became the first United States city to allow open use in bars and restaurants. Eight states plus Washington, D.C., now permit recreational use of the drug. To those of us who anticipated legal pot as a step toward ending the drug war for good, this seemed a promising move. On closer examination, however, the effects of marijuana legalization — and what they mean for the war on other drugs — aren’t so clear-cut.

In April of 2015, drug policy expert Julian Buchanan wrote that “the legalization of cannabis might actually bolster prohibition.” It is increasingly clear that many of the current laws that regulate legal pot do, in fact, perpetuate the race- and class-driven inequities of the drug war. Therefore, addressing those regulations will be key to challenging prohibition’s consequences, but it won’t be sufficient. To effectively dismantle the destructive capacity of the war on drugs, we must also look deeper, into the history of prohibition itself. Then, we will need to challenge how we frame marijuana legalization.

If marijuana can be seen as one of the “good” drugs, weed won’t be excluded from society — but it will become a brick in the wall of prohibition against everything else.

Marijuana and the Drug War

To understand marijuana’s current role in perpetuating the concept of prohibition, and why that’s a problem, we need to start with the history of the drug war. Sociologists Craig Reinarman and Harry Levine urge us to look to the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries for some perspective. From the temperance movement to Reefer Madness, authorities have long scapegoated drugs for social ills that have complex cultural and economic roots. Those in power then wield them as a tool to oppress a “threatening” other — one most often defined by race, class, or ethnicity.

In a 1997 article, Reinarman and Levine note that, in 1870s California, legislation banning the smoking of opium emerged in response to economic conditions and white fear, not excessive or troubling opium use. When the bust of the railroad industry left a slew of Chinese immigrants unemployed, higher-paid white laborers fretted over the job competition. Newspapers spun false reports of drug-induced, Chinese-on-white violence, and campaigns emerged against smoking opium, a vice associated with the Chinese. Oral consumption, which was more common but associated with whites and therefore more respectable, remained legal for the time being.

Over 100 years later, our courts doled out similarly discriminatory mandatory minimum sentences to people who smoked pre-cooked crack but not those freebasing powder cocaine. “Like other demon drugs, crack became a scapegoat — it was blamed for a range of enduring and intensified urban problems that its use sometimes exacerbated but did not cause,” as Reinarman and Levine write. That blame distracted us from the real problems of systemic economic and racial exclusion of an entire swath of the population. In fact, it disproportionately punished them for their own institutionalized oppression.

The second major problem with prohibition is that it allows us to treat drugs as active agents, thereby isolating them from the social, political, economic, cultural, and historical contexts in which they are acquired and consumed. Neuropsychopharmacologist and public scholar Carl Hart has written and spoken at length to counter the popular belief that certain drugs are always and inherently bad. Hart’s lab studies and an abundance of real-world research indicate that circumstances — from gender norms to familial drug histories to housing policies that ban people with drug convictions — play a key role in which and how many drug-related harms one experiences.

Though 60 percent of Americans now favor legalizing marijuana, its social meaning hasn’t changed completely—not for the people in charge of carrying out the policies, anyway. Thus far, each state that legalized recreational pot did so through a citizen-driven ballot measure, often in the face of resistance from elected officials and special-interest groups citing concerns about decreased community safety and increased drug use among youth. This persistent fear likely underpins a drive to get legalization “right” and pushes the development of regulations that perpetuate the drug war and its corrosive consequences.

Since legalization, marijuana-related charges have dropped by between 60 and 80 percent in both Colorado and Washington, the two states that have had the legislation long enough to study it. Yet racial disparities persist when it comes to run-ins with the law, especially in the case of public consumption. In Colorado, one major cause for this disparity is the prohibition against using cannabis “in plain sight,” which disproportionately affects people of color and people living in poverty. In a classic article from 1997 (“Two Women Who Used Cocaine Too Much: Class, Race, Gender, Crack, and Coke”), sociologists Sheigla Murphy and Marsha Rosenbaum highlight the distinct trajectories of two teenagers’ cocaine addictions. A fundamental difference between the girls’ experiences resides in their disparate abilities to conceal their drug use, “thereby escaping parental or institutional detection.” Becky had private spaces at home and work where she could use undiscovered. Monique, on the other hand, could not hide her crack use either at her mother’s apartment or while living in a group home. Consequently, she used in public, where getting caught was inevitable, and was followed by legal and familial repercussions.

Similarly, in Colorado, homeless people or those who live in shared spaces may not be able to keep their marijuana use out of sight. This increases the likelihood of being ticketed, even when the drug is medically prescribed. Although Denver now permits cannabis use in bars and restaurants, the new legislation benefits people who can afford to be in such settings to begin with. It does little to prevent the further criminalization of already vulnerable populations.

To compound matters, the poverty that puts marijuana users at risk does not fall equally across racial lines. The class warfare inherent in this “out of sight” policy exacerbates the racial biases built into the original drug war.

But there’s another challenge in the regulation of legal marijuana: policies that control the retail sector favor the white and wealthy. Jordan Wellington, director of compliance for Vicente Sederberg, LLC, and Simplifya, LLC, deals with this challenge all the time as he helps states try to diversify the owners and employees of burgeoning legal weed businesses.

Once again, fear leads to very tight controls and limits, this time on who can participate in the market. Some of the resulting regulations blatantly favor people with money. For example, Wellington notes that the application for a retail license can cost $1 million. Since whites hold a net worth 13 times that of blacks and 10 times that of Hispanics, these economic barriers disproportionately affect minorities.

Though in line with other privileged licensing laws, legal marijuana’s suitability requirements — background checks and felony exclusions to work at any level in the industry — are also inequitable, says Wellington. Despite using at similar rates, minorities are charged and convicted of drug crimes at rates significantly higher than whites — a disparity that scholars argue “cannot be explained by differences in drug offending, nondrug offending, or residing in the kinds of neighborhoods likely to have heavy police emphasis on drug offending.” Minority users’ access to the legal industry is, therefore, effectively severed.

What Now?

Interestingly, the push for marijuana legalization has sought to reposition the drug in the current system of prohibition rather than challenging the system itself. Therefore, pro-legalization discourse extols weed’s virtues, and challenges its dangers. The Drug Policy Alliance has even compiled a folder bursting with wholesome-looking, stigma-free photographs for the media to choose from in illustrating the modern marijuana user. Because prohibition is rooted in an essentialist history of criminalizing only certain drugs, this approach fits right in: If marijuana can be seen as one of the “good” drugs, weed won’t be excluded from society — but it will become a brick in the wall of prohibition against everything else.

Still, mountains of scientific and economic evidence support the actual ending of the drug war rather than shuffling the scheduling status of particular drugs. Tax revenues from legalization would almost match the current expense of prohibition. Decriminalization can reduce stigma and improve outreach, mitigating drug-related harms such as blood-borne illnesses, overdose deaths, and long-term addiction. And, perhaps most important, the direct harms caused by drug policies themselves — from incarceration to exclusion from economic opportunities — would stop.

By no means should we roll back marijuana legalization. It has the potential to be that promising first step. But in order for it to do more than perpetuate the problems of prohibition, we must recognize that, if we’re not careful, these new policies will leave us with the same culture of prohibition-with-exceptions that helps the monied while criminalizing poor people and people of color.