A proverbial green rush is sweeping the United States of America. Once unthinkable, marijuana legalization is now taking hold in several states across the country.
After a long fight against the forces of “reefer madness” public opinion has swung in favor of the green economy. Now marijuana is legal for adult use in nine US states and momentum in other states is growing. Despite a newly-hostile Justice Department, support for marijuana legalization remains at an all-time high of 64 percent – including 51 percent support among Republicans, according to Gallup.
It wasn’t always this way. Although marijuana has been used for thousands of years for medical purposes, it was criminalized in the 1910s and 20s. The first anti-marijuana laws were enacted in the Midwest and the Southwest, targeted at Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants. Racial stereotypes have long been used as the impetus to enact harsh anti-drug laws. Early anti-cocaine laws were directed at Black men, and the first anti-drug laws in the US were targeted against Chinese immigrants.
In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs – primary against the Black community and the antiwar left. The 80s and 90s saw a rush of drug war hysteria ushered in by Regan Administration’s response to drug-related violence, primarily within the cocaine trade. Combined with the rise of for-profit prisons, stop-and-frisk policies, the war on marijuana as a proxy for a larger war on drugs became big business and an excellent form of social control via mass incarceration.
Between 2001 and 2010, there were more than eight million marijuana arrests – one every 37 seconds. All of this to the tune of about $3.6 billion a year to conduct a failed war on marijuana. A groundbreaking study by the ACLU laid bare the racist enforcement of marijuana laws. Blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana, despite roughly equal usage rates.
Groups like the Drug Policy Alliance, the Marijuana Policy Project, NORML and Americans for Safe Access have served on the front lines against the war on marijuana. The work of these organizations has been instrumental in combating a disastrous consequences of marijuana prohibition.
Where is marijuana legal now?
Currently, 29 states, including the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico allow the medicinal use of marijuana, starting with California in 1996. Bolstered by the examples from a legal and regulated market, voters in Colorado, Washington in 2012 approved measures that made the states the first jurisdictions in the world to legalize marijuana for adult use. Two years later, Alaska, Oregon and Washington adopted similar voter-approved measures.
In 2016, Oregon, California, Alaska, Nevada, Massachusetts, and Maine followed suit. Earlier this year, the Vermont state legislature became the first state legislature to legalize marijuana.
New Jersey, New Mexico and New York could be the next states to come on board with marijuana legalization campaigns already underway. Marijuana law reform also is taking shape on the municipal level – surprisingly as of late, in the South. Cities like Atlanta, New Orleans, and Jackson, MS have moved to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. Baton Rouge, LA and Albuquerque, NM are considering doing the same.
To legalize or decriminalize?
The terms legalization and decriminalization gets tossed around interchangeably, but they’re vastly different concepts. Decriminalization is simply the loosening of criminal penalties for marijuana possession – often reduced to a minor civil infraction. Under decriminalization, the manufacture and sale of marijuana remains prohibited. Some states and localities began to experiment with decriminalization in the early 1970s, but a harsh drug war climate in the 1980s under Ronald Regan and Just Say No slowed the momentum. As states began to legalize marijuana for medical use in the late 90s and beyond, marijuana became a low enforcement priority in many major metropolitan areas.
While decriminalization is a necessary first step, it doesn’t address the greatest harms of prohibition, such as crime, corruption, harmful health consequences – not to mention racist enforcement of marijuana laws – in the absence of regulatory oversight. A 2016 report found that before California legalized marijuana, Blacks and Latinos endured the greatest burden of marijuana law enforcement to the tune of 500,000 arrests between 2006-2016.
Legalization, while not perfect, removes marijuana from the criminal justice system and allows the government to lawfully regulate it for revenue purposes.
How America’s experiment with legalization worked thus far?
As explained in a recent report by the Drug Policy Alliance, the evidence shows that marijuana legalization is indeed working so far. In states that have ended marijuana prohibition, arrests for marijuana are down, marijuana tax revenues are exceeding initial estimates, and youth use has not increased – in some states it has even decreased, the report found. At the same time, the marijuana industry is creating jobs at a rate that will outpace the manufacturing sector by 2020.
States with legal marijuana are allocating the revenue for social good. From the report:
- Colorado distributed $230 million to the Colorado Department of Education between 2015 and 2017 to fund school construction, early literacy, bullying prevention, and behavioral health.
- Oregon allocates 40% of marijuana tax revenue to its state school fund, depositing $34 million into the fund so far. The state also distributes 20% to alcohol and drug treatment.
- Nevada’s 15% wholesale tax is projected to bring in $56 million over the next two years to fund state schools.
- Washington dedicates 25% to substance use disorder treatment, education and prevention. The state also distributes 55% of its marijuana tax revenues to fund basic health plans.
- Alaska will collect an estimated $12 million annually, which will fund drug treatment and community residential centers.
- California and Massachusetts will invest a share of their marijuana tax revenues in the communities most adversely impacted by drug arrests and incarceration, particularly low-income communities of color, to help repair the harms of unequal drug law enforcement.
The end of marijuana prohibition doesn’t simply present opportunities for criminal justice reform–it represents new paths to economic empowerment. One of the many groundbreaking provisions of California’s Proposition 64, which legalize marijuana in the Golden State in 2016, promotes equity within the marijuana industry, which is overwhelmingly white. California’s voter-approved measure earmarks funds for reinvestment in communities most harmed by the war on drugs. And in one of the most ground-breaking criminal justice reform provisions, it allows those with previous marijuana convictions to have their records cleared. Further, a previous felony conviction is not a barrier to entering the marijuana industry.
As support for legalization grows, so does the potential for economic growth in the marijuana industry. For those with an entrepreneurial spirit, it would be wise not to be left behind.
In response, organizations like Hood Incubators have stepped into the void to provide opportunities for communities of color to participate in the new gold rush. Hood Incubators create pathways to ownership in the marijuana industry for black and brown people most harmed by the drug way.
Entrepreneurs like Wanda James, the first Black woman to own a marijuana dispensary in Colorado, are leading the way as people of color enter a thriving green economy.
Dr. Malik Burnett, a physician advocate and a board member of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation was a lead strategist behind Washington, DC’s marijuana legalization campaign. His advice for every aspiring marijuana entrepreneur can be found here. His advice is clear – educate yourself on the laws and regulations around marijuana in your state. It’s worth a listen.
While all this movement toward legalization on the state and local level offers hope, marijuana remains illegal federally. However, there is promising momentum in Congress for finally end marijuana prohibition. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the Marijuana Justice Act, which would end federal marijuana prohibition, support racial justice and help repair communities most impacted by the war on drugs. Representative Barbra Lee (D-CA) has introduced a companion bill in the House of Representatives.
As opinions about marijuana change, the old guard of drug warriors are not going down without a fight. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has vowed to push back on the trend of legalization on the state level and decriminalization on the local level. Nashville and Memphis both voted to decriminalize marijuana in 2016, but those decisions were overturned last year by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam. However, the state legislature is close to passing medical marijuana legislation. The success of Booker’s bill is vital, not only to end the war on marijuana, but to repair the harms the drug war has inflicted on communities of color. You can learn more and lend your support here.
Tommy McDonald is the Director of Multimedia for the Drug Policy Alliance, where he also hosts “Drugs and Stuff: A Podcast About Drugs, Harm Reduction, Mass Incarceration, the Drug War and Other Stuff.”