Why is Cannabis a Social Justice Issue?

The War on Drugs: Past to Present

Many substances that are illegal today, such as cannabis, have been used around the world for thousands of years to socialize, pray, and heal. Yet when these substances were made illegal, it led to the subsequent targeting and destruction of many poor and minority communities.

Drugs were given a label of deviance and used to signify racial inferiority starting in the 1870s, with U.S. opium laws targeting Chinese immigrants. This was followed by anti-cannabis laws aimed at Mexican migrants in the 1920s. Drugs were used as an excuse for discrimination, persecution, and harassment. This tool of racial oppression has continued through to the present day, with people of color and their communities disproportionately targeted for drug related crimes.

So, how did this criminalization happen?

With the rise of the civil rights and anti-war movements in the 1960s, drugs became widely recognized as a symbol of counterculture and a rebellion against “traditional” American values. After President Nixon’s 1968 campaign, the black community became one of his biggest critics. While Nixon could not make laws persecuting an entire community directly, he could do exactly what those in power had been doing for the past century: intentionally associate drugs with minority communities and subsequently enact harsh laws against those drugs.

“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” former Nixon aide John Ehrlichman revealed in an interview conducted in 1994 that was not unearthed until 2016 by Harper’s Magazine. “We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

In 1971, President Nixon officially began the war on drugs, which drastically increased the size of drug enforcement agencies. Increasing penalties related to drug possession and sales had a devastating effect on black communities, separating countless families through incarceration for drug-related offenses.

Following the election of President Regan, the war on drugs rapidly expanded. Public concern about drug use grew, thanks in part to Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign, as well as media portrayals of drug users as “junkies,” rather than people suffering from a health crisis brought on by poverty, unemployment, and depression.

Instead of recognizing that inner-city poverty and violence often occur due to cuts to the social safety net, housing discrimination, the defunding of schools, and unemployment, drug use was blamed for the downfall of many black and brown communities. Furthermore, anti-drug hysteria created an opportunity for extreme punishments for non-violent drug offenses to be solidified into law. Even as the anti-drug hysteria gradually lost steam, the harsh drug laws remained, and the number of people imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses rose from 50,000 in 1980 to over 400,000 in 1997.

To This Day

When the war on drugs began, the US prison population was 200,000. Today, more than 2,000,000 Americans are incarcerated, which is one of the highest prison populations in the world. Although African-Americans only make up 15% of American drug users, they comprise 37% of those arrested and a whopping 59% of those convicted for drug related crimes. In 2014 alone, there were more than 1.5 million drug arrests. More than 80% of those arrests were for possession and over half were for cannabis.

Even in states where recreational cannabis is legal, police issue possession citations at a much higher rate in black and Latinx communities and crime free ordinances still get people of color evicted for legally possessing, using, or growing cannabis in rental units.

Today, the legal cannabis industry is booming for investors and entrepreneurs with capital to participate. In fact, over 80% of cannabis business owners are white, while most of the people in prison for selling or using cannabis are African-American and Latinx. Furthermore, it is extremely difficult, if not outright prohibited, to open a legal cannabis business with a felony record in most states. This has made it nearly impossible for the people directly impacted by the war on drugs to enter this lucrative industry legally.

Justice Grown believes that it is the responsibility of all cannabis industry players to help rectify the devastation inflicted by the war on drugs. In order to be an ethical player in the cannabis industry, it is imperative to not only be wholeheartedly committed to restorative justice, but to act on that commitment.

We are convinced that it would be unconscionable to profit from the same activities that have disproportionately sent hundreds of thousands of people of color to jail without addressing injustice and working to heal those wounds.

Jay-Z’s The War On Drugs: From Prohibition to Gold Rush
Drug Policy Alliance
Open Communities
Marijuana Policy Project
CNN: Report: Aide says Nixon’s war on drugs targeted blacks, hippies

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