The past few weeks have brought on a resurgence of social justice activism. Mostly stemming from the Black Lives Matter movement, people have come together online and in-person alike, to protest the racial injustices of today’s society. While many factors unfortunately contribute to racial inequity, one of the more controversial ones is the criminalization of cannabis. All the way back in the 1930s, policymakers portrayed cannabis in an extreme manner that would result in the framing of users as criminals. This then continued and worsened with the War on Drugs in the 1970s. To the average American, it may appear as though cannabis consumption has become normalized today and is not a problem. However, drug-related arrests are not decreasing in response to the normalization of cannabis. Instead, as it becomes more accepted, White entrepreneurs enter the cannabis industry, while Black and Brown folks disproportionately face arrest for possession. This cannot continue to help one group profit while others are suffering, as a result, simultaneously. The criminalization of cannabis, beginning with Harry Anslinger, has created further racial inequity in American society by making it so that Black and Brown folks are disproportionally susceptible to drug arrests.

How Did This Begin?

Before the Drug Enforcement Administration, Harry Anslinger led the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. In the 1930s, the United States moved towards passing legislation that would put an end to the Prohibition Era set in place by the 18thAmendment. Once people realized that they would be left without jobs, after the #1 drug, alcohol, no longer needed strong enforcement, they took matters into their own hands. A new drug had to be deemed as detrimental to American society. Anslinger took advantage of the opportunity and focused on one drug in particular: cannabis. He made it a point to paint it in the most violent light possible, even if not all the evidence he presented was factual. In other words, he created a drug problem so that he would still have a position in the U.S. government. To aid in the vilification, he wrote his infamous piece: “Marijuana – Assassin of Youth.” Anslinger included anecdotes pertaining to suicide and homicide, among other kinds of violence. He additionally made it a point to blame Jazz musicians for the cannabis “problem” in the U.S. These components came together and then influenced the War on Drugs 40 years later. Anslinger’s efforts and their lasting impacts demonstrate how repercussions for cannabis consumption have been racialized since the beginning. Because he targeted Jazz musicians, which were predominantly Black, this influenced how the U.S. would view cannabis and its consumers up to today. By focusing on Black folks, cannabis consumption evolved into a racial inequity problem that puts this group at a stark disadvantage.

What Crime Statistics Say Today

Arrests made for the possession of drugs are not declining. In the last few years, they have actually been increasing, according to the New York Times. Additionally, a disproportionate number of those arrests are made on Black and Brown individuals. The same source claims that in 2018, New York drug charges split into 35% White, 37% Black, and 25% Hispanic. This might not seem problematic at surface level until realizing that in New York, only 18% and 19% of the population identify as Black and Hispanic, respectively. These statistics highlight the very disproportionate nature of drug arrests. If certain groups were not being targeted, then the numbers should reflect the makeup of the population more closely. However, this is not the case. The Pew Research Center also reports cannabis as the most frequent drug arrest. 40% of the time, this is the cause, and in those cases, 92% are for possession. This again reinforces the salience of cannabis in the criminal justice system. Therefore, because cannabis dominates the drug arrest agenda, and Black and Brown people are disproportionately arrested for this, racial inequity is present.

The Reality of Cannabis Consumption

Contrary to popular belief, different racial groups actually use cannabis at similar rates. According to the ACLU, Black and White folks’ cannabis use is relatively equal. In 2018, 42.4% of Black folks and 50.7% of White folks reported having used cannabis at some point in their lives. Also, 17.8% of Black folks and 16.5% of White folks reported using it at some point in the past year. There is clearly no huge gap in cannabis consumption as the media portrays; thus, their claim that Black folks have higher consumption rates is false. It is also extremely important to keep in mind that these are rates, so these statistics are comparable across racial groups. While music, film, and other mediums tend to feature Black drug use, especially cannabis, this does not equate to a higher rate in this group. Just because the media portrays Black folks in a certain manner, does not make it true; the statistics only support this. These rates underscore how Black (and Brown) folks are more likely to be arrested for something that they consume at the same rate as White folks. This can only point towards the targeting of these communities, which began decades ago and feeds into the racial inequity still seen today.

Implications For The Future

From a privileged standpoint, it might seem like too much attention is brought to this issue because a drug arrest is just a charge. However, it is never just a charge. For anyone, but especially Black and Brown individuals, a charge can have detrimental future consequences, specifically in regard to employment. Having a drug charge slims job prospects significantly, making becoming employed a challenge. Black and Brown folks are already more likely to be unemployed, so being more susceptible to receiving a drug charge definitely does not help. This, resultantly, creates further racial inequity. By being more likely to get arrested, one is more likely to receive a charge, which makes employment more difficult, and with an unstable income, other problems arise, such as family support, housing, etc. What seems like a localized issue actually creates a domino effect that generates greater racial inequity.

What Now?

Action must be taken to address this issue now. Four steps lay out the bare minimum of what needs to be done so that cannabis consumption and its effects no longer produce racialized outcomes. First, cannabis must be decriminalized. This allows for fines to take the place of criminal charges and feeds into the second necessary step. Second, it must be legalized at the federal level. Some states have begun to legalize cannabis, but until this occurs nationally, discrimination will still occur. Third, Americans must fight for more Black and Brown representation in the cannabis industry. White dispensary owners overwhelmingly profit in this business, and it just does not make any sense while Black and Brown folks are receiving charges for simply possessing cannabis. Fourth, the prison system must release those facing time for cannabis charges. After legalization, it would not be fair for these people to continue to sit in prison, especially when others are profiting from the same activity. Sure, this might be a small part of racial inequity in the U.S., but it is still contributing to the larger picture. Little strides are just as important in the fight towards racial justice and, as always, Black Lives Matter.