Pot Legalization is Not About Getting High–It’s About Ending the Drug War

Two weeks ago, New York became the 14th state to legalize recreational marijuana.

A week later, Virginia became the 15th and the first Southern state.

Most of the country now has either fully legalized, decriminalized, or allows marijuana use for medical purposes.

Although pot growers and users are getting their long-overdue vindication, the big deal about marijuana legalization lies not in the newfound ability to toke up in public.

It’s about chipping away at the racist police and prison industrial complex that has blighted the United States with a decades-long failed drug war.

New York Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a staunch legalization advocate, stated after Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legalization into law:

“It’s been horrible. This specific war on drugs dismantled a huge chunk of our population.”

A New York Police Department (NYPD) study confirmed Black or Hispanic individuals comprised 94% of marijuana arrests last year.

This, as many are aware, has led to needless felony records and shattered lives.

That is why NY’s recent legislation commits 40% of the state’s future marijuana tax revenues to be invested in neighborhoods experiencing the highest drug arrests, and expunges previous marijuana convictions existing within the new legislation’s parameters.

In a press release, NY State Senator Liz Krueger said:

“My goal in carrying this legislation has always been to end the racially disparate enforcement of marijuana prohibition that has taken such a toll on communities of color across our state, and to use the economic windfall of legalization to help heal and repair those same communities.”

While sales of recreational cannabis will not take effect for another year and half, New Yorkers over age 21 are now permitted to possess up to three ounces and smoke or vape it anywhere cigarettes are permitted except in vehicles, at workplaces, colleges and universities, hospitals, and within 100 feet of schools.

As states plow ahead with legalization, however, they remain at odds with federal law.

Ezekiel Edwards of the American Civil Liberties Union, who last year co-authored a study  showing Black and brown individuals are three times more susceptible to marijuana-related arrests than white people, explained:

“There is still what we would call a war on marijuana in many places, disproportionately harming communities of color.”

Even the burgeoning pot industry is fraught with racial economic disparities.

In localities where pot sales have been legalized, people of color are frequently excluded.

Andrew Freedman was Colorado’s “pot czar” for three years before consulting other states seeking to follow Colorado’s example.

He now works with “Coalition for Cannabis,” an organization trying to move the federal government in the legalization direction.

He explained:

“It has been really bumpy. First of all, a lot of people want into this industry so there’s a lot of competition. Second, it’s an expensive industry because there are so many regulations, and it’s simply expensive to operate.”

University of Southern California economist Rosalie Liccardo Pacula, who studies drug policy and marijuana legalization, stated Black and brown dealers still sell outside the legal market, leading, in some instances, to more prosecutions.

She told NPR:

“The legal market companies didn’t like the fact that the black market is still around. So targeted enforcement began happening against the same minorities.”

But advocates of NY’s recent legislation claim this is what the Empire State’s law is meant to address.

Drug Policy Alliance’s New York Chapter head, Melissa Moore, explained NY’s law provides people of color investment capital to assist the transition to the legal marijuana business.

One means to accomplish this is through “social equity” dispensary licenses reserved for those who can demonstrate their businesses could benefit communities prior drug policies have harmed.

State officials see the state’s pot industry creating 30,000 to 60,000 jobs and ushering in more than $350 million per year in tax revenue.

The 13% tax to retail sales for state and local revenue will be put toward the state cannabis revenue fund, 40 percent of which will be invested in education, 40 percent in  the Community Grants Reinvestment Fund, and 20 percent in the Drug Treatment and Public Education Fund.

Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes pronounced:

“We are providing marijuana justice by ensuring investment into the lives and communities of those who suffered for generations as a result of mass incarceration.”

Now if we can only get President Joe Biden on board.

Image credit: Minister Erik McGregor via Flickr

Ted Millar is writer and teacher. His work has been featured in myriad literary journals, including Better Than Starbucks, The Broke Bohemian, Straight Forward Poetry, Caesura, Circle Show, Cactus Heart, Third Wednesday, and The Voices Project. He is also a contributor to The Left Place blog on Substack, and Medium.