One hundred fifty-two years ago, the United States of America defeated the rebellion instigated by the 11 southern states that formed a confederacy in the defense of the institution of slavery.
During the Civil War, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that as of January 1, 1863, all slaves in the U.S. “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
But freedom for enslaved Africans did not include equal rights. It wasn’t until February 3, 1870, that the 15th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified.
This amendment declared that the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
For the new African-American citizens of the late 19th century, though, that right to vote was soon denied by the southern states through legislative means.
Starting in 1889, these states passed poll taxes that required anyone wishing to vote to pay one or two dollars for the privilege. Some states required payment of cumulative back taxes for all the previous elections as well.
The intent and effect of the poll tax was to prevent the desperately poor—overwhelmingly African-American citizens recently freed from slavery—from being able to exercise their right to vote.
In case some of the black voters could scrounge up the buck or two to pay the tax (equivalent to $18 to $36 in today’s dollars), some states imposed literacy tests as a requirement to vote. Since it had been a crime to educate a slave and slaves who were known to be literate were often killed, this, too, had the intent and effect of thwarting black voting.
In 1936, a white male citizen sued over Georgia’s poll taxes. The tax in question applied only to men aged 21 to 60. With the passage of the 19h Amendment for women’s suffrage, the man argued before the court that such a poll tax was a discriminatory infringement of men’s right to vote, and that it violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
Amazingly, the Supreme Court ruled that poll taxes were not discriminatory. “To make payment of poll taxes a prerequisite of voting,” wrote the majority, “is not to deny any privilege or immunity protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.”
Regarding the claim that forcing men to pay a poll tax, but not women, was discriminatory, the court held, “It is fanciful to suggest that the Georgia law is a mere disguise under which to deny or abridge the right of men to vote on account of their sex.” (True enough, since it was a disguise to deny voting on the basis of race, not gender.)
These legislative roadblocks for African-Americans to exercise their right to vote continued all the way until 1964 and the ratification of the 24th Amendment banning poll taxes for federal elections.
Even then, Virginia, Alabama, Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi maintained poll taxes for state elections until 1966, when the Supreme Court decided in Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections that poll taxes were banned in all elections at every level.
Think about that for a second. Last year’s election marked just 50 years of this country’s history in which all black people could vote, after being denied that right guaranteed to freemen for the prior 96 years, and denied that right as slaves for the prior 250 years before that.
The lesson here for marijuana reform is that achieving equal rights rarely happens in a single constitutional, legislative or judicial victory. Legislators who hate the new rights citizens have gained will always find legislative ways to thwart those citizens.
Today, adults in eight states now have guaranteed the right to possess cannabis. But we are far from equal.
In the areas that allow pot shops, overregulation and punitive taxation work together to increase the price of cannabis beyond many people’s budgets.
Thus, if you’re a poor person without a car, your right to possess cannabis is as meaningful as a black man’s right to vote in Georgia in 1917. He couldn’t afford the poll tax, you can’t afford the pot tax, and it is difficult or impossible for either of you to move elsewhere.
Then, consider that even if you do manage to possess some marijuana, how are you going to legally consume it? Every legal state has banned the consumption of cannabis in public, with Nevada elevating it to a misdemeanor crime worthy of a $600 fine.
Also, none of the legal states have yet established legal pot lounges, where someone could actually consume the cannabis they’re allowed to possess.
So, while we say that adults have the right to smoke marijuana in eight states, in reality, only adults wealthy enough to own a home or lucky enough to have a 420-friendly landlord can exercise that right.
What good is the right to possess cannabis if you can’t grow your own, if there are no pot shops in your area to buy it or if weed is either taxed too high or overpriced at the shops you can find? On top of that, what good is the right to possess weed if there’s no legal place to consume it?
Let’s just hope it doesn’t take a civil war, two amendments, two Supreme Court decisions and 96 years before we can all toke a reasonably-priced joint at our neighborhood pot lounge.