Puff, Puff, Pass: The Politics of Legalized Cannabis

Will the United States leadership's "war on drugs" right its wrongs?

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In the United States, the movement for decriminalizing and legalizing cannabis has gained considerable traction over the past few years. More than 36 states have enacted medical cannabis laws, and 15 states now permit the use of cannabis for those over 21. In 2019 the global legal cannabis industry was valued at $17.5 billion with a 67% increase in sales in 2020 alone. While these strides are encouraging, it also raises the question of who is profiting from an industry that has caused prejudicial devastation to Black and brown communities across the nation.

America’s relationship to cannabis began quite amicably, in fact hemp was a key crop for the survival of our early economy. Hemp was used for the production of sails, rope, and clothing and later in medicines and remedies. In 1619 the Virginia Assembly passed legislation requiring every farmer to grow hemp, and later during World War II the U.S. Department of Agriculture created an incentive program for hemp farming to produce military paraphernalia. It wasn’t until after the Mexican Revolution of 1910, when Mexican immigrants flooded the United States and shared the recreational use of cannabis, that we began to see a backlash against the crop.

For fear of losing jobs during the Great Depression, racist and xenophobic anti-drug campaigns began— “Marijuana Menace” and “Reefer Madness”—to associate violent and criminal activities with the drug and its Mexican users. Accounts confirm that the term “marijuana” was coined and popularized as a way to underscore the connection to Mexican immigrants who were characterized as “inferior races and social deviants.”

Through the inflammatory leadership of Henry Ainslinger—the father of drug policy in the U.S.—and subsequent policies by the Nixon, Reagan, and Bush administrations, cannabis became classified as a Schedule I Drug with steep mandatory minimums that targeted Black and brown communities. The War on Drugs has had devastating and far-reaching impacts. Cannabis became a tool in an all too familiar scheme to incarcerate Black and brown communities and keep them disenfranchised and impoverished.

The United States is seriously moving toward the decriminalization of cannabis, and this has given rise to a major new industry. But there remains the unfinished business of the previous era and the fundamental injustices inflicted upon those who suffered criminal convictions and their consequences. Some state governments, like California, have adopted “equity programs.” These are meant to support marijuana entrepreneurs who were either imprisoned for cannabis-related offenses or who come from neighborhoods disproportionately affected by the war on drugs. However, these programs operate as a lottery and only benefit select individuals.

On the other hand, large corporations continue to dominate the industry. The business climate for cannabis companies has proven immensely difficult for various reasons, including high taxes, rapidly changing regulations, and a robust illicit market. Other advocacy organizations across the country, such as Last Prisoner Project, MCBA, and Supernova Women, have erected intervention and professional development programs, working from a belief that, “if anyone is able to profit and build wealth in the legal cannabis industry, those individuals must also work to release and rebuild the lives of those who have suffered from cannabis criminalization.”

As communities work to rectify the trauma inflicted by the criminalization of cannabis, industry experts look to the examples of Canada, Israel, and China, to learn how to hold our government and big business accountable to those most disproportionately affected. With a new administration, increased programming in the advocacy space, and continued legalization, there is immense hope for the revitalization of cannabis into a profit-sharing industry that can give back to the very communities it from which it took.

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