After a long checkered past dwelling at the fringe of American society, marijuana is moving into the mainstream. Recreational use has been legalized in 19 states, with decriminalization of the drug and widespread acceptance of CBD in a majority of others. With only four states holding out on some softening towards cannabis, it looks like America’s on the fast track towards a federal-level reckoning. This would be a huge boon to industry, agriculture, medicine, recreation and, naturally—tax revenue.
But from where I stand, marijuana is the new King Cotton.
As more states legalize weed and it morphs into a mainstream corporatized industry, I can’t help but see a stark dichotomy: most of the weed entrepreneurs on magazine covers are white, while the faces still stuck behind bars for marijuana-related crimes are predominantly Black. As the sticky green translates into the taxable kind of green, we see a disparity as American as apple pie: a white class of business and property owners profit mightily while the marginalized are prosecuted and jailed for the very same hustle.
Indeed, the majority of the people who suffer under incarceration for drug-related offenses now—and who have suffered historically are BIPOC. Neighborhoods and communities have been decimated by decades of mandatory minimum sentencing, which permanently marred the records of teens for minor offenses and took them out of the mainstream workforce and the home-owning population for the rest of their lives.
Most folks who indulge in weed view it as harmless.The clean-cut executive who smokes a fatty after a grueling day of negotiations; the soccer mom who keeps a stash handy to take the edge off a hectic week with the kids. We need to begin to look at the human cost of that ounce of weed smoked by “upstanding citizens.” What is your role in the supply chain? Being so far removed from any personal effects of street violence, broken families, incarceration and permanent loss of rights, have these casual weed smokers ever pondered what goes into that bowl on their coffee table, and the cost of getting this moment of “relaxation”? Now that we’re moving towards mass legalization, we need to make sure that those who benefit are those who have been victimized in the past. Because right now, we are setting the stage for more of the same old story: in a cruel twist of irony, a handful of those who have lined their pockets through the for-profit prison system have become leaders in the weed industry—or, to say it again, the new cotton.
I am neither “pro” or “anti” marijuana. What I invite us to consider is how we can begin to have parity in a segment of our system that has been unjust to so many for far too long. The war on drugs in this country destroyed entire communities, stripping millions of people of their dignity and rights as citizens. All that this country has “won” in this war is systemic poverty and the highest incarceration rate in the world. As Michelle Alexander writes in The New Jim Crow, “Convictions for drug offenses are the single most important cause of the explosion in incarceration rates in the United States. Drug offenses alone account for two-thirds of the rise in the federal inmate population and more than half of the rise in state prisoners between 1985 and 2000.”
Of course, over the past few years, drug-related social issues have come to the fore thanks to middle America’s opioid crisis. Yes, it is important for us to cut through the moralizing that often accompanies any public discussion of drug use, and my heart certainly breaks for families ripped apart by opioid abuse. However, I do wonder if the fact that this crisis has hit white, rural and suburban communities so hard isn’t the reason the media can somehow rustle up the sympathy it never had for Black folks arrested for smoking or selling pot (which is, unlike opioids, not a Class A drug).
Legalized weed is undeniably big business, which is why many states are setting aside previous reservations and jumping on the bandwagon. Colorado, which legalized in 2012, raked in $2.2 billion last year in annual sales, and with many turning to the herb for a quick dose of stress relief during the pandemic, consumption of this herbal remedy has nearly doubled: according to Weedmaps orders data, orders in the first half of 2021 increased by 55% compared to the first half of 2020, Now with more celebrities, high profile individuals, and old-guard titans of industry like Philip Morris zeroing in on marijuana as a cash cow, they must take the lead in considering how they can support the growth of this industry as a means for reparations and reconciliation. The communities that the criminalization of marijana chronically devastated could now leverage this new industry to provide them generational wealth. On the immediate front, there needs to be a call for abolishment of mandatory minimums for drug offenses; resentencing/pardons for currently convicted drug offenders and restoration of housing rights for past drug offenders.
Additionally, we must consider how we can support those from these communities in their efforts to enter into the field as legitimate business owners. Many states that have legalized marijuana recognize that communities of color should be the ones to get “first dibs” on the new industry’s dormant wealth. Social and economic equity programs in newly legalized states like New York promise to be “game changers,” but unsurprisingly, undoing years of injustice isn’t so easily realized. For one, a cap on social licensing means that, while some might get lucky in a lottery, others will again be left out in the cold. As Morgan Fox from the National Cannabis Industry Association stated, “Almost all social equity applicants have issues with access to capital or even getting a license. It often comes down to who can hire the best consultants to put together the best application, and if someone can sit on real estate or keep paying a lease until they get approved. And that can open the door to predatory partnerships that can strip away control of businesses from the people these programs are meant to help.” Yet again, the system continues to reinforce the power of the wealthy. “It takes money to make money” still remains a core barrier for those trying to reach their American dream.
While this burgeoning marijuana industrial complex certainly hosts a raft of problems, I believe that there is also a kernel of a solution that has eluded this country ever since the Civil War. Perhaps the marijuana industry is where reparations can at last begin. These companies ought to each have funds that go to directly service communities that have been the most affected by the war on drugs—that was, in effect, more a war on people. Legal marijuana companies must fund and lobby for the repeal of draconian sentencing laws, such as the Rockefeller Statutes in New York, that continue to demonize and lynch low-level offenders who would benefit more from access to support systems than decades of incarceration for paraphernalia that can fit in a front pocket of a pair of jeans.
Next time we speak breathlessly about the possible tax revenue from legalized weed, we need to think harder about what those taxes are funding: they ought to go right back into the communities that were decimated by the unequal enforcement of drug laws for decades. The US has a lot of healing to do and a lot of harm to repair: let’s make the legalization of marijuana a force for social justice—not just another means of recreation and profit for the wealthy and the white.