What Happens to People of Color After Weed Is Legal?
Last week marked a historic step for the legalization of marijuana, as the House of Representatives passed the trailblazing MORE Act that could decriminalize the substance federally. The bill, which marks the first time a marijuana bill was voted on in Congress, passed by a vote of 228–164, would also expunge nonviolent marijuana criminal records en masse if it passes in the Senate. Though the future of the bill is highly dependent on whether the Democrats flip the Senate in the Georgia runoffs, the MORE Act could potentially address many racial inequality issues. However, experts tell ZORA that there’s still much more work to be done though this is a first step.
The mass expungement of marijuana-related criminal records could potentially free 40,000 Americans who are currently incarcerated due to marijuana charges and erase the stigma of past criminal convictions. Felony convictions can affect a previously incarcerated person’s employment prospects, housing options, right to vote, familial relationships, and friendships. Erasing those records would help previously incarcerated people access rights that are stripped away by the criminal justice system, and diminish some of the long term effects of felony convictions, particularly for previously incarcerated Black job applicants who experience significant discrimination in the job market in comparison to their White counterparts. For Brittany Friedman, PhD, assistant professor of sociology at Rutgers University, mass expungement would be a significant and necessary decarceration tool, but she warns that reparations must come along with any attempt to repair the harm of the war on drugs on marginalized communities.
“The contemporary war on drugs was but one iteration of violence, nested within a long history of financial dispossession through the use of assigning criminal labels to behavior and people,” Friedman said. “Expungement must be paired with truth and reconciliation not only in the form of words but in dollars. Public and private entities have profited immensely through the moral panic created around the criminalization of marijuana and the requisite use of policing and incarceration.” Friedman also pointed out that there are historical harms the MORE Act does not address, considering the long history of the war on drugs, police violence, and mass surveillance. “If we situate marijuana within the history of mass surveillance and resulting incarceration, then the criminalization of marijuana has harmed millions of people, dating as far back as the 1930s, with massive intergenerational effects on families and communities,” she said.
The effects of the war on drugs are felt especially by Black people, who are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested on marijuana charges than White people, and the MORE Act could be a welcome step toward eradicating the propaganda that has sustained abusive law enforcement practices. Professor of anthropology at Princeton University, Laurence Ralph, author of The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence, believes that this shift in legislation could address racial bias by disrupting the disproportionate incarceration of youth of color. “Police are well aware of communities in which youth of color are commonly picked up for marijuana possession and distribution. The legislation could potentially change the life course of those young people fundamentally,” he said.
However, Daniel Kavish, PhD, assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at Southwestern Oklahoma State University, warns these expectations must be tempered. Giving the example of Philadelphia, where marijuana arrests have declined by 90% since the decriminalization of the substance in 2014, but Black people are still arrested at a rate of four times that of White people, Kavish says the culture of policing itself needs to change: “Law enforcement has relied on propaganda and fearmongering for too many years to sustain its enforcement practices that wreak havoc on Black and Latinx communities by criminalizing mundane behaviors such as smoking marijuana.”
If the bill passes in 2021, cannabis businesses owned by people of color would have access to Small Business Administration grants and to a trust funded by a federal 5% tax on cannabis retail sales.
An important provision of the MORE Act is the creation of a community reinvestment grant program that would fund job training, health education, youth mentoring programs, and legal aid for those more adversely affected by the war on drugs. If the bill passes in 2021, cannabis businesses owned by people of color would have access to Small Business Administration grants and to a trust funded by a federal 5% tax on cannabis retail sales. Professor Ralph says this somewhat addresses the issue of the gentrification of the cannabis industries: “It would be a step in the right direction in terms of addressing the racial wealth disparity. Of course, there is far more to be done, but one of the worries for communities of color is that marijuana will be legalized and they will only be positioned as consumers. Proactively thinking of business owners of color is the responsible thing to do, given that communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs.”
For Friedman, the bill does not go far enough even if business owners of color will be helped by the community reinvestment grant program, and she argued for stronger financial compensation for the millions affected by the criminalization of the substance. “Financial reparations are a long time coming in order to truly compensate people, in part, for the social and civil damages wrought by the criminalization of marijuana,” she said.
The passing of the MORE Act in the House of Representatives is a landmark moment after decades of marijuana reform activism. Public opinion is in the bill’s favor despite consistent fearmongering propaganda from law enforcement, with 68% of Americans expressing support for the legalization of the substance. What remains to be seen is whether the Senate will be ready in January to start making things right for those who have been adversely impacted by the war on drugs.