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Cannabis Legalization and the Quest for Social and Economic Justice

Decades of gross racial disparities in marijuana arrests is now giving way to equally gross racial disparities in who profits from the legal marijuana trade.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Senator Mitch McConnell has been a huge advocate of hemp legalization.

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So as you can imagine, with the chamber approving a farm bill provision that would allow for the legalization of hemp, the Kentucky Senator was quick to cheer all the progress that had been made. He even said that he’d be happy to let Trump use his hemp pen to sign the bill.

Can you imagine that? Donald Trump signs the farm bill with a hemp pen? That would make for one hell of a photo op. Certainly Mitch McConnell’s career will benefit from such a thing. And really, isn’t that what it’s all about? Rich white politicians furthering their careers by legalizing something because it benefits them directly?

While I’ve long been a vocal advocate of legalization, and while I’m pleased that so much progress has been made towards ending prohibition, there’s a certain reality that has not adequately being addressed: As the green rush unfolds, and rich white people get insanely rich off the legalization of cannabis, the very folks who were most negatively affected by the war on drugs continue to get screwed over.

From Persecution to Restitution

The very foundation of the war on drugs was built on the persecution of black and brown people. Back in the 1930s, Harry J. Anslinger, the nation’s first drug czar, used racism and fear to scare white folks into approving the prohibition of cannabis. This is the man, by the way, who once said …

There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.

This, dear reader, is the man who started the war on drugs. A war that has been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people – mostly people of color – throughout the world.

For nearly a century, the war on drugs has ravaged minority communities, imprisoned far too many black and brown people, and laid the groundwork for a level of social and economic oppression that represents the very antithesis of freedom and justice for all.

Yes, it’s wonderful that hemp will soon be legal to grow. And it’s wonderful that we’re seeing more and more states defy the federal prohibition of cannabis.

But the bottom line is that legalization without some form of atonement and restitution for those who have suffered the most under prohibition serves as little more than a continuance of US policies that have empowered and enriched the wealthy elite at the expense of the poor and powerless.

Do you think anyone doing time for a dime bag is excited about Mitch McConnell’s hemp pen?

Do you think the children of the parents who have been shot and killed by overzealous police officers fighting the war on drugs will find solace in former House Speaker John Beohner’s recent decision to join the cannabis industry?

While the legalization of cannabis is a step in the right direction in terms of personal sovereignty and the quest for freedom and liberty, without ensuring that all Americans -- not just rich white ones -- are included in the wealth creation opportunities that stem from legalization, we do a huge disservice to the values we claim are embedded in our democracy: liberty, equality and justice.

Related: These Social Justice Weed Warriors Are Making a Difference

Justice, Equity and Reinvestment

Last week, I attended the Marijuana Justice, Equity, and Reinvestment conference in Albany, NY. It was there where I was given a much-needed reminder...

The trail of destruction caused by the war on drugs will not disappear with legalization.

More than half the states in this country have some form of legalization in place, yet our prisons are still overcrowded with non-violent drug offenders, most of whom are black and brown people. The communities that have been most affected by the war on drugs remain mazes of vacant homes, food deserts and chalk outlines that far exceed those found in wealthy, white communities.

Make no mistake: These conditions are primarily the result of the war on drugs, which has really been a war on poor and minority communities.

Related: Racial Injustice and the Legal Marijuana Industry

Social Justice in New York

Here in my home state of New York, it’s looking more and more likely that we’re on the path to legalization. It took a long time to get any real momentum going, but just recently we saw a number of lawmakers join the move to legalize cannabis after it was suggested that the tax revenue generated from legalized cannabis could be used to fund subway repairs.

New York’s subway system is struggling, but not because New Yorkers haven’t ponied up enough in taxes or in fares. The system is falling apart because of fiscal mismanagement. The very government that has enforced the war on drugs, and mostly in minority communities, has been unable to responsibly fund the subway system. So now the burden of debt is supposed to fall on a legal cannabis industry?

The bitter irony is not lost on me.

Only in a fiscal emergency does the government now want to legalize cannabis in order to cover its transit debts. But what about a much bigger debt? The debt it owes to the people and communities terrorized by the war on drugs for nearly a century?

Such a debt seems much more urgent, and it’s a debt that can be properly paid by ensuring that the majority of tax revenue generated through the sale of cannabis is used to rebuild the communities that were on the front lines of the war on drugs.

The United States rebuilt a lot of Europe’s infrastructure after WWII. Certainly we can do the same in our own country, where our own communities were destroyed during the war on drugs. Not only would this serve as some sort of restitution for years of pain, death, and destruction, but it would also serve as a very smart investment opportunity.

It is estimated that with the adult-use of cannabis legalized in New York, the state would generate about $3.1 billion a year. This isn’t even close to enough to cover all the repairs and upgrades that would need to be done to New York’s subway system. And of course, using those funds to cover even part of this major undertaking would result in very little in terms of a worthwhile return on investment. Re-investing these funds, however, into the communities that have been hardest hit by the war on drugs could accomplish a significant return on investment.

Using some of that revenue to fund job training programs, adult education services, and an expansion of early childhood education and after school programs in minority and poverty-stricken communities would not only accomplish some level of restitution, but it would also serve as a much-need economic boost for these communities. A boost that could instigate a very real revitalization of local economies. This isn’t just an exercise in social justice. It’s an exercise in economic justice. And really, the two are intertwined. One simply cannot exist without the other.

Related: Challenges and Controversy Swirl Around Marijuana Social Equity Programs in California

As we head into 2019, legalization will take center stage, and it will be pitched as both a social justice issue and an opportunity for the state to generate some much-needed income. What the state decides to do with that income, however, is still up in the air. But make no mistake: If some of this tax revenue is not responsibly re-invested into the communities that have been most negatively affected by the war on drugs, then the social justice argument for legalization will be little more than another empty promise from the very people who have a long history of getting rich off the pain and suffering of black and brown people in this country. Such an outcome is simply unacceptable.