Marijuana Legalization Can’t Erase Decades of Disenfranchisement and Incarceration

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NEWS AND POLITICS Marijuana Legalization Can't Erase Decades of Disenfranchisement and Incarceration "It's time for lawmakers to advocate for comprehensive laws and new community programs to remedy the effects legislation has had on the livelihood and well-being of people of color." Shammara Lawrence

On Capitol Hill and beyond, social attitudes about marijuana are rapidly changing. According to a Gallup survey from October 2017 , 64% of Americans support legalizing marijuana — the highest percentage in the past half-century. To date, 29 states and Washington D.C. allow the use of the substance for medicinal purposes. In January 2018, the Adult Use of Marijuana Actwent into effect in California, allowing for licensed cannabis businesses in select cities to begin selling recreational marijuana to those 21 years old and older. In the lifestyle space, luxury brands have proclaimed cannabis to be a promising new frontier.

While many pro-marijuana activists may see these advancements as a step in the right direction to combat the stigma surrounding the sale and use of weed, there is one glaring problem with the changing conversation surrounding legalization: Although people of color have borne the brunt of decades-long discriminatory drug policies, white people have effectively become the face of the nationwide debate about the future of marijuana in America. As many black and brown people across the nation deal with crippling criminal records, limited employment opportunities, the loss of their voting rights, and access to resources like student aid because of drug-related sentences, many white men and women have successfully capitalized on marijuana, the same substance other groups have been historically punished for. For those like myself, whose life and family and friends have been upended by the criminal-justice system, seeing stories about white entrepreneurs and their booming weed businesses dominating the news cycle in recent months is frustrating and painful.

You see, having up grown up in a low-income neighborhood in Brooklyn, I witnessed neighbors being apprehended for possession of dime bags. It was commonplace. People close to me were routinely whisked away by law enforcement for selling marijuana. It became a perennial sight. As daunting as those parts of my upbringing have been, it’s an unfortunate but common experience for many.

Countless people of color live with a constant fear of the police due to the grave effects of the War on Drugs. What started in the 1970s by President Richard Nixon as an initiative to tackle the illicit sale, distribution, and use of drugs turned into a decades-long attack on low-income minorities who were disproportionately affected by biased statues such as mandatory minimum sentences. The government-led campaign also spurred a prison boom, resulting in the United States having the highest prison population in the world, according to the Wolf Prison Brief’s database. A considerable number of those inmates are black and brown men convicted of non-violent crimes often involving marijuana, a Schedule I drug as classified by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. According to a 2016 report by the Humans Rights Watch, arrests for marijuana possession outnumbered those for all violent crimes combined.

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