How To Support Cannabis Reform At Local And Federal Levels
Why Legalization Isn’t Enough
When I was a resident advisor in college, I witnessed a police officer investigating a white student who was trafficking drugs. But instead of holding them accountable, the officer told the student about his own college years and how he used to “have fun, too.” Rather than arresting the student for pounds of illegal substances, the officer advised the student to be more discrete. I couldn’t help but think that if the student were Black, Brown, Indigenous, or a person of color, the events would likely have unfolded differently.
In the United States, cannabis arrests make up over half of all drug arrests. And these arrests are not made equally. Studies show that, despite similar usage rates, Black people are 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for possession than white people (in some counties, it’s up to 50 times higher).
While cannabis reform made waves in the 2020 election—New Jersey, Arizona, South Dakota, and Montana legalized recreational use, and Mississippi legalized cannabis for medical purposes—we’ve seen that legalization isn’t enough. Take California, for example, where cannabis has been legal since 2016; arrests have declined; however, they continue to target Latinx and Black communities disproportionately. And in South Dakota, where Indigenous people make up 10 percent of the state’s population, they constituted for 20 percent of cannabis possession arrests in 2018.
Racial disparities in the cannabis industry continue—and though cannabis legalization has gained support, as well as momentum in recent Senate bills, it’s concerning that de-stigmatization is often only extended to wealthy and white consumers. It’s an industry that’s raking in more than $10.4 billion, yet 40,000 people remain incarcerated for non-violent cannabis “crimes.”
For me, I don’t consume much alcohol, and cannabis has been a healthier alternative to unwind and de-stress. Yet, where I live in Southern California, there is a strange duality of people shopping at Apple-store-like cannabis dispensaries while the impacts from the War on Drugs still permeate society. As a Black woman, I’m pinged with guilt and fear every time I consume a cannabis product, despite legalization. But, like having a glass of wine with dinner, usage shouldn’t carry a stigma for those who choose to engage mindfully. And neither should BIPOC live in fear to use something that’s been constituted as legal.
Acting on cannabis equality and reform across the industry means tackling racial justice and looking at how the country polices BIPOC communities. The ACLU has a comprehensive report, A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform, that includes a list of recommendations for federal, state, and local governments, and law enforcement agencies.
Aside from legalizing cannabis, it asks governments to ensure industry benefits are accessible to communities most harmed by the War on Drugs and include clemency and expungement processes.
It also notes that law enforcement agencies must end racial profiling and invest in community-based services and programs rather than the criminal system. Reform and reparations look like investing in and providing support for Black-owned cannabis businesses, as well as hiring BIPOC in the industry as they have been most negatively impacted by cannabis inequality.
In the meantime, there are a few steps we can take to fight inequity at the local level and in our individual lives. We can start by reeducating ourselves about cannabis usage and its applications. We can also unlearn harmful stereotypes that target BIPOC users and hold cannabis and hemp brands accountable. Also, check out the Cannaclusive InclusivBase. Finally, we can support organizations investing in an intersectional future for cannabis. To learn more, follow @Cannaclusive on Instagram.
Leah Thomas is an intersectional environmental activist, eco-communicator, and author. She launched the intersectional environmentalist platform to explore the relationship between environmentalism and cultural identity. You can connect with her on Instagram.