Racial Injustice and the Legal Marijuana Industry
Social justice advocates don't want the allure of profits and new tax revenues to eclipse the damage done by decades of enforcement in communities of color.
Actress and New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon has pushed the issues of racial inequality and legal marijuana into the public debate. She isn't the first, but she's making her case in the media capital of the country, which means it’s getting wider attention than usual.
Nixon argues that states should prioritize giving legal marijuana dispensary licenses to those who have been convicted of marijuana charges. That number is disproportionately black, even though studies show white and black people use marijuana at about the same percentage rate.
“It’s a form of reparations,” Nixon said.
Racial Statistics on Marijuana Arrests
No matter what people might think about Nixon’s idea, there’s no arguing with the facts about marijuana arrests. One of the main reasons many have championed legal marijuana is to put an end to the racial disparity in arrests. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, for example, has been particularly adamant on this issue, writing “We can no longer accept policies that disproportionately target communities of color.”
According to an analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union, marijuana arrests count for half of all drug arrests in the country. Between 2001 and 2010, there were 8.2 million arrests involving marijuana, with 88 percent for simple possession. The study also found a “significant racial bias” in those arrests -- blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to get arrested for marijuana. A new study found that in New York in 2017, blacks and Hispanics accounted for 86 percent of arrests for marijuana possession in the fifth degree. Just 9 percent were white.
A call for change has come from both sides of the political aisle. The liberal think tank The Center for American Progress recently called for decriminalizing marijuana at the federal level. A survey last year found that, for the first time, a majority of Republicans favor legalization.
Nixon Is Not Alone
New York does not have legal recreational marijuana, although medical marijuana is legal. However, Nixon recently attended a cannabis parade in New York City where she called for legalization. She said at the event that marijuana “has effectively been legal for white people for a really long time” and that it’s time to make it official for everyone.
In addition to Murphy’s efforts in New Jersey, both Massachusetts and Oakland, Calif., have taken steps to ensure that those affected by the federal War on Drugs get priority when it comes to awarding dispensary licenses. Recreational marijuana is legal in both states.
Oakland has especially been at the forefront of this movement. In 2016, the city expanded its medical marijuana licensing program to allow more people of color to open dispensaries.
A much-quoted argument for legalization comes from Michelle Alexander, a professor of law at Ohio State University who wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times in 2013. In that piece, she argues that the potential harm of marijuana “pales in comparison with the harm suffered by the millions who have been arrested, jailed and branded criminals simply because they were caught with the drug.”