It’s easy to forget that we’re not legalizing marijuana so much as we are re-legalizing. Cannabis was legal for far longer than it’s been illegal—banning this and other drugs is a relatively new (failed) 2oth century experiment.
But it is possible to commit a greater evil while undoing the failures of our fathers, such as to exclude the people who suffered the most during the War on Drugs from the many billions of dollars in economic opportunities that legalization promises.
In classic fashion, that’s exactly what we’re doing right now.
Black people are four more times as likely to be arrested for low-level marijuana crimes than whites, as the ACLU pointed out in a 2013 report, despite similar rates of use among all people—and white people outnumbering black people in America by nearly 7-to-1.
And while black people sit in jail or get denied for jobs, education or housing because of an ancient marijuana felony, white people collect profit—for committing that same felony, or a very similar one.
Less than one percent of the nation’s roughly 3,400 marijuana dispensaries are owned by black people, a Buzzfeed review found earlier this year.
It doesn’t need to be like this.
“As marijuana reform begins to de-escalate the drug war, creating new opportunities for employment and entrepreneurship in the process, it is imperative that the people most in need of a second chance actually get one,” Grammy award-winning activist and rapper Michael Render—better known as Killer Mike from Run the Jewels—pointed out in a recent missive penned for Rolling Stone.”The price they have already paid for our failed drug policy is steep enough.”
Yet it’s relatively simple to take the “small but important opportunity to dismantle these inequalities” that legalization now offers.
All you need to do is not block their way.
Running a marijuana dispensary requires a state license—and permitting schemes in many states allow for licensing authorities to deny a permit to anyone with a recent felony conviction. As Killer Mike points out, more than 25 percent of black men not in prison have a felony on their records, thanks in no small part to the racist drug war.
In both Colorado and Washington, the first two states to legalize adult-use cannabis in America, people who committed marijuana-related crimes can be excluded from the new cannabis economy for that reason alone.
Compare that to California, where any marijuana “offender” can have a jail or prison term immediately reduced—and former marijuana “felonies” struck from their record. This is possible because Prop. 64, the state’s Adult Use of Marijuana Act, is effective “retroactively.”
Whatever the law was at the time of an offense doesn’t matter. The only basis for current punishment—be it probation, the rest of a jail term or a criminal background check—is current law.
And under current law, the harshest penalty for most cannabis crimes is a civil penalty. As Killer Mike writes, “those convicted of most nonviolent drug crimes are still eligible to operate marijuana dispensaries.”
More states will surely follow the lead of the eight so far that have voted to end cannabis prohibition. How they go about doing it is an open question. Preserving the drug war’s racist evils while declaring the greater conflict over must not be allowed to happen.
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