Marc MorialOp-EdOpinion

MORIAL: Legalizing Marijuana

“The U.S. “war on drugs” — a decadeslong policy of racial and class suppression hidden behind cannabis criminality — has resulted in the arrest, interdiction and incarceration of a high percentage of Americans of color. The legal cannabis industry represents a great opportunity to help balance the detrimental effects of the war on drugs by creating an equal playing field for all people to benefit from the changing legal landscape.” — Minority Cannabis Business Association

It’s difficult to overstate how devastating America’s racist “War on Drugs” has been for communities of color. Although Black and white people use marijuana at similar rates, Black people have been four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.

In Michigan, which has already legalized marijuana for recreational use, a 68-year-old man named Michael Thompson is 25 years into a 40- to 60-year sentence stemming from the sale of three pounds of marijuana to an undercover officer.

Last week, Illinois made history when it passed a marijuana legalization law that seeks to atone for the injustice of the War on Drugs.

Illinois’ law gives low-income communities of color — the very communities ripped apart by decades of racist drug policies — a fair shot at dispensary and grow-shop licenses. A portion of tax revenue generated by cannabis sales will be directed to investment in those communities through the Restore, Reinvest and Renew Program.

Under the new law, arrest records for possession of small amounts of marijuana will be expunged automatically, and the board that makes clemency recommendations to the governor will receive a list of everyone convicted of minor possession offenses.

Nearly 800,000 criminal histories could be erased under the law.

We applaud Illinois historic achievement. We stand ready to evaluate the implementation and effectiveness of the law. We urge other states to follow Illinois’ lead when crafting legislation to legalize marijuana by looking comprehensive at redress for past wrongs and creating economic opportunities for communities that bore, and continue to bear, the negative effects of the War on Drugs.

The history of cannabis in the United States — which became known as marijuana in the early 1900s — is fraught with racist hysteria. Following the Mexican Revolution, more than 890,000 Mexican people legally immigrated into the United States between 1910 and 1920. Even though cannabis long had been used in the United States as an ingredient in unregulated “patent medicines,” the Spanish term marijuana became associated with fear and prejudice against new immigrants. By 1930, 16 states had outlawed prohibited marijuana as a way to target the growing Mexican community.

In 1971 President Richard M. Nixon launched the “War on Drugs,” which was exposed in 2016 by White House Counsel John Ehrlichman as a political ploy to target African Americans and anti-war protesters. Two years after Nixon proclaimed drugs “public enemy number one,” presidential hopeful Nelson Rockefeller, then-governor of New York, signed the most draconian drug statues in the nation, setting the sentence for selling two ounces of certain drugs, including cannabis, or possession of four ounces, at a minimum of 15 years to life in prison. The laws have been blamed for tripling New York’s prison population.

Even now, as states have begun legalizing recreational marijuana use, recent investigation by The New York Times found that Black people were nearly 15 times more likely than whites to be arrested in New York City for low-level cannabis crimes.

It’s going to take much more than simple legalization to level the playing field — and Illinois’ new law recognizes the challenges.

Illinois will waive half of the application fee for license-seekers who are either long-term residents of a “disproportionately impacted area” or who have been incarcerated for a minor pot crime that is eligible for expungement under the bill.

These applicants who receive a license to grow or sell marijuana in Illinois will also be eligible for special low-interest loans from the state, direct grant aid for startup costs, and other benefits.

As Illinois state Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth said, “What we are doing here is about reparations. After 40 years of treating entire communities like criminals, here comes this multibillion-dollar industry, and guess what? Black and brown people have been put at the very center of this policy in a way that no other state has ever done.”

Morial is president of the National Urban League.

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