Governor Murphy talks about marijuana legislation Marijuana
High school students view it as a pastime. Entrepreneurs see an up-and-coming industry. White celebrities and suburbanites flaunt it as their quirk.
Alarming rates of Black people are still in prison for it.
The recent prominence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has reignited the fight against police brutality, along with a plethora of other issues that harm Black and lower-income communities. One issue that has come to light is the legalization of marijuana. This is not necessarily a plea for sweeping legislation, but rather a reexamination of who has benefited from its legalization, and who its criminalization has hurt.
In recent years, many states have legalized marijuana, reduced sentencing for possession, or decriminalized it. In all but three states, it is legal for medical use, and eleven states have legalized its recreational use. This has prompted the growth of the legal cannabis industry, yet thousands of people remain in prison for nonviolent marijuana charges. With relatively steady rates of usage across race, according to the Brookings Institution, Black people are disproportionately punished for it, and according to the American Civil Liberties Union, are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people on average.
In addition to factors such as racial profiling and high policing of Black neighborhoods, structures such as the cash-bail system result in extensive time in jail for those who cannot meet their bail payment, people who are often Black and living below the poverty line. While disparities are only worsening in many states where it is not yet legal, the drug is growing in popularity, evoking the question of who can get away with it and who cannot.
One large demographic of marijuana users that views the drug casually, neglecting to take note of the serious legal consequences and possible health concerns is high schoolers. With 23% of high school seniors reporting its use within the past month, according to statistics from the federal Department of Health and Human Services, marijuana has become an increasingly popular drug among high school students, trailing only alcohol.
A white, 17-year-old rising high school senior living in suburban Freehold, New Jersey, who will go by Kelly, did not like smoking weed when she first tried her sophomore year, but has “gotten more of an appreciation for it” during quarantine. Kelly now smokes about twice a week and typically buys marijuana from her 20-year-old brother or a close friend of hers. She now rarely feels in danger of purchasing or feared being arrested.
“I’ve gotten a lot better at hiding it,” she said.
She supports the decriminalization legislation that has been enacted in New Jersey and believes that high incarceration rates for marijuana are problematic, especially among Black communities, which she said she feels are often underserved and criminalized.
“The whole prison system needs reform,” she said.
An expo attendee walks past the PowerTrakGrow booth in the Cannabis World Congress and Business Exposition on Thursday, May 30, 2019, in New York. (Photo: Danielle Parhizkaran/NorthJersey.com)
An 18-year-old 2020 high school graduate who will go by Pablo, said he felt that legal enforcement of marijuana laws is racially biased.
“It definitely depends on the neighborhood you live in,” he said.
Pablo comes from a different background than Kelly. He is a Black first-generation American and lives in a predominantly Black community in Queens, New York. He said he uses marijuana daily and also sells it. He said he knows people who have gotten in trouble for distribution, and he fears this himself to an extent, but continues to sell. He said he has no moral qualms with dealing, and differentiated between marijuana and other schedule one drugs.
“I’m not serving people that are like, scratching their necks,” Pablo said.
When asked whether he supported legalization, Pablo joked, “It could kill my market!” He also said that legalization has benefits such as introducing quality control, economic growth, and mainly, freeing many people who are incarcerated on what he perceives as unfair grounds.
Rates of usage are growing among teenagers, but this is not as shocking as the rise in usage among well-educated adults, many of whom populate predominantly white suburbs. Marijuana has long been considered a harmful gateway drug that was off limits in run-of-the-mill suburban families, but it has become somewhat mainstream.
In 2017, a tweet from @TODAYshow praising “Marijuana moms” sparked conflict on Twitter when many users clapped back at the hypocritical nature of the post.
@FeleshaLee commented, “Prob makes black men better dads too but we wouldn’t know bc they’re in jail for it instead of on the Today show.”
Amid national discussions of anti-racism and the BLM movement, screenshots of these tweets were reposted to several activist accounts on Instagram, highlighting the inequities that marijuana users across America face.
In addition to its casual use among teenagers and liberated parents, many prominent celebrities publicly use recreational marijuana. To name a few, Elon Musk, Jeffree Starr, and Tish Cyrus, all proudly discuss their marijuana habit. Cyrus has a podcast titled “Sorry, We’re Stoned” and in February 2019, her husband, Billy Ray Cyrus, shared a photo of her standing next to several large bags of marijuana on Facebook.
“I know people, like, that are in jail for the rest of their lives for, like, just one of the bags she was holding,” Pablo said, explaining his feelings about celebrities’ open usage of marijuana.
Celebrities have long-been nearly immune to prison sentences for drug use, and are often sent to rehabilitation centers instead. Members of The Grateful Dead openly used marijuana long before talk of legalization. But now celebrities as well as everyday people can make large-scale profits off of marijuana. While the cannabis industry presents economic benefits for the U.S., the racial inequities do not stop here. As people profit off of an industry that others are doing prison time for, many are also facing more challenges when entering the industry.
To add insult to injury ,the legal cannabis industry is dominated by white people, who, according to industry news site Marijuana Business Daily, own 81% of cannabis businesses, in comparison to only 4.3% that are Black-owned. While white people often have financial advantages, such as generational wealth, that ease the entry into any industry, being arrested at significantly lower rates for marijuana possession has also likely assisted their success in the cannabis industry. For those who lack financial resources, it is very difficult to obtain a cannabis business license to open a dispensary.
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The effects of incarceration due to marijuana possession extend beyond the prison sentence. Some states, such as Illinois, have offered expungement for minor cannabis charges, effectively erasing their criminal records, and sometimes offering an advantage in setting up businesses. Still, the process for expungement is often very tolling and expensive, making many of these efforts fruitless. According to a report from National Expungement Week, an organization offering legal relief to those with marijuana charges, only 4-6% of those eligible for expungement take advantage of it.
Legalizing weed has brought joy to devoted marijuana users, investors, teenagers, and adults who are experimenting. It has freed thousands of prisoners. Yet there are inconsistencies that linger, including the legacy of its status and criminalization, and in the way the legalized industry is taking shape.
Those whose lives have been damaged by incarceration — mostly Black people — are now watching wealthy entrepreneurs — mostly white people — benefit from something that has undone their own ambitions.
That many are being treated by the legal system and prospective employers as criminals, even as others are glorified as “enlightened” by the media for using the same drug, adds to the inequity. There is still a long way to go for justice, and cannabis justice is only the tip of the iceberg.
Karen Kurson is a student at Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey, where she is an editor on the school’s newspaper, The Columbian.
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