As a Black woman living in California, I’ve always felt conflicted about buying and consuming cannabis. It’s legal to use cannabis here, both medically and recreationally, so naturally patrons and businesses have followed suit. New dispensaries pop up on gentrified corners of Los Angeles seemingly every month; they feel modern and inviting, with an Apple Store-like simplicity and elegance. For a moment, walking through, you’d believe the history of cannabis was bright and joyous—even though for Black folx, it’s been everything but.
In reality, it’s been five decades since President Richard Nixon declared a War on Drugs with the intention of reducing substance abuse across the United States. Instead, marginalized communities were subjected to unjust arrests, mass incarceration, and discrimination. When President Ronald Reagan took office in the 1980s, he implemented even more tough-on-crime policies and mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, which we now know have no significant value in reducing drug use. Instead, this ruthless war has separated families, destroyed communities, treated addiction as a crime, and disproportionately imprisoned Black cannabis consumers and sellers. And the effects continue today: The ACLU reported that between 2010 and 2018, Black people were more likely than white people to be arrested for cannabis possession in every state, including where cannabis is legal.
So even as we make progress, I still can’t bring myself to rejoice yet. In the days after the 2020 election, news articles and social media posts celebrated the legalization of recreational cannabis in multiple states: Montana, Arizona, New Jersey, and South Dakota. Then in late 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation to decriminalize cannabis at the federal level. (The bill remains stalled in the Senate.) But while decriminalization and legalization are the first steps toward equality, they are not a complete solution.
To destigmatize cannabis for everyone, we must focus on restorative justice, a theory and philosophy of justice that focuses on rehabilitating and healing, rather than punishment. We need to establish policies that expunge arrest records for those who have been convicted of cannabis-related crimes and create pathways for them to access the developing new industry.
Research sadly shows that prosecutors are more likely to pursue a mandatory minimum sentence for Black people than their white counterparts. About 80 percent of people in federal prisons for drug offenses, and about 60 percent in state prisons, are Black or Latinx folx. We live in a society where a conviction can permanently alter the course of someone’s life; it can take away opportunities from voting to employment, education to housing. Even an encounter with the police force can be traumatizing in and of itself. Take, for example, Khalil from Massachusetts, who still gets rejected from job openings because of a 17-year-old cannabis conviction. NORML, a cannabis legalization advocacy group, told Vox that there are hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, of people with similar experiences as Khalil.
Alternatively, in the industry, less than one-fifth of cannabis owners or stakeholders are people of color and only 4.3 percent are Black. In order to address the systemic issues at hand, we need to focus on creating more job opportunities for BIPOC in the industry, advocating for reform policies to even out the playing field, funding BIPOC-owned businesses and innovators, and creating fair pathways to enter the newly-legalized industry. It’s essential that as a new culture of cannabis develops in the U.S., we remember how cannabis has been used as a tool of oppression against BIPOC and blatantly denounce discriminatory practices that still exist to this day.
Luckily, we are starting to see cannabis brands do just that: Pure Beauty provides their customers with ways they can help right the wrongs of the War on Drugs; Lady Jays has donated proceeds to the Last Prisoner Project; and Simply Pure is a Black-owned cannabis company that advocates for the release of Black and brown folx who have been wrongly imprisoned for cannabis charges.
But even so, the cannabis industry cannot do it alone. Everyday citizens must demand that the U.S. government play their part both at the state and federal level. While some states like California and Massachusetts have tried to implement policies to address racial justice issues and support recovery, the ACLU reported that “much of this country has yet to start on the road toward equitable, smart, reparative marijuana policy.”
In order to build an equitable future, we must destigmatize, revitalize, and reimagine this industry to ensure the future of cannabis is intersectional and just. We must recognize that cannabis is a racial and social justice issue—and that simply focusing on decriminalization and legalization will not suffice.
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