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Black Drug War Reparations, How Would That Work?

Russ Belville

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Last week’s International Drug Policy Reform Conference was notable for its inclusion of activists who have been working in the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s undebatable that the prohibition of drugs has led to disproportionate enforcement of the law towards African-Americans. The ACLU has found that black people are around four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than white people, even though we use marijuana at roughly the same rates.

And as marijuana becomes legal throughout various U.S. states, many in the African-American community see a green rush that is primarily benefiting white people. Last year, Dr. Michelle Alexander, whose book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Era of Colorblindness opened many people’s eyes to the civil rights struggle inherent in the drug war, put it like this:

“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. Now, white men are planning to get rich doing precisely the same thing? … After waging a brutal war on poor communities of color, a drug war that has decimated families, spread despair and hopelessness through entire communities, and a war that has fanned the flames of the very violence it was supposedly intended to address and control; after pouring billions of dollars into prisons and allowing schools to fail; we’re gonna simply say, we’re done now. I think we have to be willing, as we’re talking about legalization, to also start talking about reparations for the War on Drugs, how to repair the harm caused.”

At the Reform Conference, Deborah Small, the founder and executive director of Break the Chains, picked up on the same idea of white men plundering the black community now that legalization is creating this new marijuana industry:

“To all of you pot entrepreneurs out there, my question to you is, are you going to be a parasite or a social engineer? Are you going to use your money to keep sucking the blood out of our [African-American] community, or are you actually going to be a part of the solution of applying reparations. Yes, I said that word because, God damn it, I am done with the idea of people having policies that screw over people for decades and then one day say, ‘oh wow, we’ve become enlightened, my bad,’ and all of a sudden it’s all good. And we’re still left with the scars, we’re still left with the hurt, we’re still left with all of the damage that has been done. You guys owe us and I’m here to collect.”

That theme of reparations—the making of amends for a wrong one has done, by paying money to or otherwise helping those who have been wronged—has been around since the end of slavery. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote The Case for Reparations in The Atlantic, opening with the centuries of disadvantage that black people have faced in American society: “Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.”

Reparations for the entirety of slavery through neighborhood redlining, however, would come with a massive price tag. The original promise to freed slaves made by General William Tecumseh Sherman was the famous “40 acres and a mule,” which would be an incredible bargain compared to the $5.9 trillion to $14.2 trillion estimate University of Connecticut researcher Thomas Craemer proposed for full reparations.

The idea of reparations for the drug war might be easier to tackle.

Consider the difficulty of paying reparations to black Americans for slavery. Who, exactly, gets paid? Not all black people in America can trace their ancestry to a former African slave. Those who can might trace it to an African kidnapped to America in the 19th century, others back to the 17th century—do they get a different cut? Some black people in America have substantial non-black ancestry—do they get a smaller cut? What if a former slave ancestor was granted his freedom; there were free blacks in America. Or does ancestry even matter when a modern African immigrant with no ties to slavery would still face a system stacked against those with his skin color due to the legacy of slavery?

But with the drug war and, specifically, marijuana legalization, we have very detailed records and data about who was impacted. We could examine ways to repair the damage the drug war has wrought on African-American communities without wading into the thickets of who is deserving of the reparations.

First, as we legalize weed state-by-state, we can put an end to the prohibitions on licensing for anybody who has a previous conviction for marijuana offenses.

That has a racial impact. Since cops are more likely to bust black folks, those folks are less likely to be able to become legal participants in the new market. It doesn’t make much sense, anyway. Why would we want to prevent the people with the most experience in the marijuana market from being legal operators? Isn’t the idea of legalization to turn criminals into law-abiding citizens?

Second, we could see to it that the distribution of the tax revenues from marijuana legalization could be earmarked to specific programs that benefit the communities that have been devastated by the drug war.

However, neither of these two suggestions prevents the already-well-capitalized white businessmen from making the lion’s share of the profit in this new legal green rush.

So why not create an affirmative action program for marijuana licensing that encourages the formerly illegal to join the legal marketplace? A scoring system, perhaps, that gives various points for previous possession, cultivation or trafficking convictions, plus more points for every year of incarceration. I can already imagine critics attacking that as rewarding criminal behavior, but I’d spin it as recruitment bonuses to pull the best marijuana talent into the legal marketplace.

Another idea would be to assign licenses based on the distribution of disproportionate criminal enforcement of the former prohibition. For example, if a county locked up 60 percent black people, 25 percent Latinos and 15 percent whites for marijuana sales, then its 10 potential dispensary licenses have to go to six blacks, three Latinos and one white. Similarly, assign cultivation licenses based on cultivation bust rates and assign budtender and trimmer jobs based on possession bust rates.

The points system combined with racial license distribution could work to create a new marijuana industry dominated by people of color that would then start helping to lift up their decimated communities. However, it would still provide some preference to white people who had been victims of drug war incarceration as well.

It’s not a perfect solution—why should the growers and dealers who managed to get caught get to cut in front of the ones who didn’t get caught, for instance? But c’mon, my fellow white folks, we all felt a little less guilt when we gave the Native Americans most of the casino market. Why not turn over most of the marijuana market to the blacks and Latinos who paid the price to keep us high all these years?

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