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Racism in Marijuana Prohibition Doesn’t Transcend to Legalization

Russ Belville

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Full disclosure: I am as close to being the perfectly average cis-gendered straight white middle-aged middle-class married man as statistically possible, so I recognize I come to the discussion with a trunk full of privilege.  But I cannot let lie a statement I read this weekend from a thinker I deeply respect, Dr. Michelle Alexander, author of the groundbreaking best-seller, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”.

The statement arose from a discussion held on March 6 of this year.  I read it then on Alternet and it didn’t sit well with me, but other than leaving a comment on the site, I don’t recall bringing it up.  But now it resurfaced on my Facebook page as one of those meme photos, and it still sticks in my craw.

“Here are white men poised to run big marijuana businesses, dreaming of cashing in big—big money, big businesses selling weed—after 40 years of impoverished black kids getting prison time for selling weed, and their families and futures destroyed,” Alexander said.  “Now, white men are planning to get rich doing precisely the same thing?”  Alexander also explained how she sees “warning signs” that white men are the face of the legalization movement and the emerging pot industry.

So… don’t legalize marijuana?  Don’t let it be a business?  Establish affirmative action priorities in licensing pot businesses?  There are no racial barriers to cashing in on the green rush.  If there aren’t enough black faces in the marijuana industry, that’s an indictment of systemic racial barriers to entrepreneurship, period.  If the black kids illegally selling the weed who didn’t get caught saved up their profits from slinging $300 ounces, they’re as welcome to get licenses and open pot shops as the white guys illegally growing the weed who saved their money.

The implication here seems to be white hypocrisy.  White men punished blacks for weed selling, now white men are ready to cash in on selling weed.  Well, I recall plenty of black congressmen in the 1980s and 1990s and 2000s voting to support the laws that enabled mass incarceration for marijuana, Dr. Alexander.  There were (and still are) plenty of black church leaders demonizing the scourge of marijuana users as vehemently as did Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan.  And it was only in this decade that the major black civil rights leaders and organizations have come around to legalization, thanks in large part to Dr. Alexander’s book.

But I also recall that the fight to legalize marijuana was founded by white men forty years ago when there was nothing but public scorn and career suicide to be gained from it.  White men who came out publicly to seek the law enforcement attention that their white privilege would usually protect them from.  And I know from personal experience working as a marijuana activist how I could always find eager white pot smokers ready to come out publicly to end prohibition, but I could rarely find black marijuana smokers willing to do the same.

Many of those black kids selling weed that Alexander mentions were also very dedicated to maintaining their illegal profits and harming their communities instead of joining us to shape legalization in a way that profits them and benefits their communities.  Not many of those weed-selling kids (black or white) ever picked up a clipboard to volunteer to register voters and collect petition signatures in their neighborhoods for marijuana market legalization in California, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska.

There’s nothing stopping Oprah Winfrey, Robert L. Johnson, or Tyler Perry from investing in the new green rush, but it’s white former Microsoft executives and Yale MBAs jumping in, isn’t it? Aside from people like Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa licensing their images to future products, where’s the black investment looking to help those black kids open legal pot shops and commercial grows?  Diddy owns a vodka brand, Jay Z owns a cognac brand, why not pressure them to foster the next black drug entrepreneurs?

I completely agree that the prohibition of marijuana has been enforced disproportionately against black people.  I understand that disproportionality provides additional incentives for black marijuana users to remain uninvolved in public legalization, and that it confuses faith leaders and civil rights leaders to mistake the harms of prohibition for the harms of marijuana itself.  I’m disappointed that legalization hasn’t gone far enough in expunging criminal records and commuting prison sentences so black kids who got caught don’t get to join the green rush, but that penalty applies to white kids who were caught, too.

The legalization of the marijuana market is not being implemented disproportionately in favor of white people.  If anything, it reflects the disproportionate efforts of white people who fought for legalization for over four decades and the racist nature of American capitalism in general.

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