After a meeting with black millennial leaders and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), I visited one of my closest friends who lives in a quaint apartment complex in a D.C. suburb. Attempting to decompress from the conversation about mass incarceration, gender equity, and bail bonds, I found myself zoned in on Maryland foliage swaying gently from a spring breeze. My attention was then captured by children traversing the courtyard of the complex with elevated voices and sheer excitement. The children were unfazed by the economic limitations characteristic of the neighborhood. And, as pick-up games of soccer convened on both ends of the property, no one seemed concerned about the certain scent of marijuana lofting in the air. Though Maryland has decriminalized marijuana possession, I could not help but consider the intersectional practices of policing poverty and criminalizing nonwhite communities, which grossly imbalance marijuana-related arrests despite equivalent usage cross racial and class demarcations throughout the nation.
In February, Senator Booker, alongside Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) reintroduced the Marijuana Justice Act intended to abolish the federal prohibition against cannabis. The law would legalize marijuana nationally and remove the plant from the Drug Enforcement Agency’s list of controlled substances, companion to incentivizing states to end their respective Cannabis bans. Considered the strongest proposal to undo the social squeeze of the drug war on nonwhite communities, the bill offers provisions for persons currently incarcerated in federal prison for marijuana convictions to petition for resentencing. Moreover, the law would retroactively and automatically expunge existing marijuana-related criminal records at a federal level.
In 2017, one in seven Americans reported using marijuana, with smoking being the most common form of consumption. Every 53 seconds, law enforcement arrests someone in the U.S. for marijuana possession, approximately 650,00 people a year. Overall, marijuana arrests made up 40.4 percent of the nation's 1,632,921 drug arrests in 2017. New Jersey — my state, which incarcerates our black residents at 12 times the rate of our white residents — alone expends more than $ 140 million of taxpayer dollars to arrest more than 24,000 people annually for marijuana possession. Although black and white communities use marijuana at comparable rates, black residents are three times more vulnerable to arrest for cannabis violations than white residents.
A pillar in the American carceral boom, the drug war reincarnates antebellum chattel economics and Jim Crow democracy, which we mistakenly assume died from the impact of the silver bullets of legislative feats like the passage of 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, and then again with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Marijuana is a decades-long instrument of white supremacy. Harry Anslinger, America’s first drug tsar, framed marijuana prohibition in unambiguously white supremacist terms: “The primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races,” namely black, Mexican and Filipino Americans. In the 1930s, he further added, “Marijuana influences Negroes to look at white people in the eye, step on white men's shadows and look at a white woman twice.” Anslinger’s rationale exposes the ways marijuana prohibition, like the broader war on drugs, exemplified the criminalization of certain races and the racialization of certain crimes.
Unless the money that will be made from marijuana’s federal legalization is used for robust community reinvestment in affected residential communities across America, it fails the moral litmus test of social justice and pumps oxygen into racial wealth disparities. Without this reinvestment, America will once again be blowing smoke into the face of those who have historically been most victimized by the criminalization of marijuana. The abovementioned federal legalization proposal includes the development of a community reinvestment fund to specifically benefit communities most ravished by the marijuana ban, and the decades-long failed war on drugs. The architects of the bill outlined some potential funding areas: job training, post-incarceration and expungement services, public libraries and community centers, youth programming, and health education.
If we invest exclusively in early childhood education each year after legalization, marijuana tax revenue can provide a buffer to the adverse effects of concentrated poverty. The legalization of marijuana nationwide, if taxed at rates comparable to those on alcohol and tobacco, would generate $132 billion in tax revenue and a million jobs in the first decade. The Marijuana Justice Act possesses the potential to combat concentrated poverty, the very poverty marijuana prohibition helped to maintain and expand.
After at least four generations of structural harm toward poor and nonwhite communities, states and the federal government owe us intentional structural repair. Without targeted community reinvestment, Marijuana Justice amounts to a sham protecting the capitalist interests of whiteness. Everyone knows who will be allowed to grow cannabis and reap huge profits legally. It will not be those who have suffered most from racial judicial targeting for possession and sale of cannabis. We cannot allow politicians to create cannabis laws that will generate exorbitant levels of white wealth without repairing the harm caused by the existing laws that created generations of so-called black criminals strategically locked in poverty. It’s time out for just blowing smoke.