A Bill of Goods: Will Legalization of Cabbabis Result in Social Justice?
With 8 states (and Washington DC) legalizing cannabis for adult use and many more states contemplating legalization, people and organizations have joined the rally cry to legalize cannabis. State NAACP chapters across the country have come out in support of legalization to address criminal justice reform, reduce rates of incarceration among black and brown citizens, and promote social justice. Proponents of legalization of cannabis cite a decrease in arrests in states that have legalized. Yet, if we look at the stats more closely the data may not be utopian fix to systemic racism that people are all hoping for.
The Drug Policy Alliance (a pro-legalization advocacy group) is promoting cannabis legalization as a social justice issue citing data from Colorado saying arrest rates are down, and that is true. However, statistics are a funny thing. Data can be manipulated to tell the story we want to tell. If we dig a little deeper and look at the demographic data related to the statistics, we realize a crucial part of the story is being left out of the social justice narrative.
Arrest rates in Colorado and other states that have legalized are down among for all citizens over 21 (regardless of race and ethnicity). The arrest rates are also down for young Euro-Americans men. However, if we look at the arrest rates of young Black and Latinx men we find there is a significant increase in the number of arrests related to cannabis.
Legalization of cannabis decreases the risk of arrest for those over 21 years of age, as well as for Euro-Americans under age 21. However, there is an increased risk of being arrested if you are under 21 and have black or brown skin with cannabis in one’s possession. With this information it is difficult to argue that legalization of cannabis is the key to ending public policy based in systemic racism, and discrimination. If legalizing cannabis cured the social ills of systemic racism and white supremacy, the magic herb would have been legalized years ago. In fact, America’s legacy of abuse and oppression of people of color would never have occurred as cannabis was not deemed illegal until the early 1900’s in hopes of keeping Mexican immigrants out of the USA. The American legacy of subjugation of brown bodies long pre-dates the outlawing drug use.
Social justice is a complex process, and legalizing cannabis will not be the great equalizer. In order to reduce racism, discrimination, and white supremacy our legislators must be dedicated to creating a more fair and just country for all our citizens. We must create policies to address the systemic oppression that is a result of our legacy of slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the “Southern Strategy”. We must come together as a nation and explore our national shadow and develop policy to reduce the wealth gap, increase access to education, provide reparations for slavery, as well as dismantle racist laws that continue to incarcerate Black, Indigenous and other people of color (BIPOC) for selling a plant that has led to a "Green Rush" among those with ivy league pedigrees. Until we as a nation make peace with and provide a cure for the legacy of oppression in the USA, legalization of cannabis will continue to benefit a few, at the cost of many.
*21 is the legal age to purchase cannabis in the states that have legalized cannabis for recreational use.