We Need to Talk About Marijuana’s Race Problem

Marijuana's Legalization Exposes Cannabis Racial Injustice
Marijuana's Legalization Exposes Cannabis Racial Injustice | Photo By Shane T. McCoy/US Marshals

Most Americans aged millennial and older will recall the days when they couldn’t get through an episode of their favorite TV show without seeing at least one commercial highlighting the adventurous, grandiose lifestyle afforded only to smokers of those smooth, rich, ever-so-cool cigarettes.

Those 30-second vignettes that spun illusions of luxury, sex appeal, and global exploration all but disappeared at the turn of the millennium. But after nearly a two-decade hiatus, modern conventions like the e-cigarette have sparked a new era of consumer interest in smoking.

That’s the power of Big Tobacco, which boasts influence that so permeates American society that nearly every adult alive today has been targeted as a prime potential user at some point. Still, as last year’s Truth Initiative report made clear, none have been more affected than communities with low income and minorities.

For some, there’s growing concern that the same phenomenon could easily occur with the commercialization of marijuana—especially given that the foundation for a disproportionately negative impact already exists.

“Creating a [commercial cannabis] industry is going to create another Big Tobacco or Big Alcohol, and those have disproportionately harmed communities of color as well,” Will Jones, Communications and Outreach Associate with the bipartisan nonprofit Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) told the Bluntness. “I don’t want to see that repeated.”

In Colorado, which legalized the recreational use of marijuana, a 2016 Colorado Department of Public Safety study found that “juvenile marijuana-related arrests have increased among African-American and Hispanic teens in Colorado after legalization.”

According to that report, the percentage of Hispanic and African-American arrests for adolescents under 18 went up 29 and 58 points respectively between 2012 and 2014.

As a nonprofit associate and firefighter, Jones has not only done his research on the subject, but witnessed Big Tobacco and Big Alcohol’s effects firsthand in his local community around Washington, D.C.

“For where I live, the closest store to my house is a liquor store, the next closest are convenience stores that primarily sell cigarettes, alcohol, and lottery tickets,” he said, pondering, “In addition to a liquor store on every corner, will there will be a pot shop?”

Decriminalization and commercialization are two separate issues, however, Jones added. Although he doesn’t want to see the commercialization of recreational drugs like cannabis, he doesn’t believe their use should come with criminal charges.

“I don’t think [drug use] is a reason for anyone to be in contact with the criminal justice system,” he said.

If there is one positive that comes out of the legalization conversation for advocates like Jones, it’s the possibility that restitution will be made to those currently and formerly incarcerated on petty drug charges.

“When we’re talking about this issue of incarceration, a must is that we have to have expungement and pardons,” Jones added. “What’s striking to me is that people [in states like] Colorado are still in prison for marijuana charges. The state didn’t change that.”