Legalizing Marijuana May Be A Good Idea, But It Is Not A Racial Justice Strategy

Ever since election day, liberal pundits and activists have been buzzing about the success of marijuana decriminalization ballot measures in Washington and Colorado. The general consensus is that these election victories and polls showing that a majority of Americans support decriminalization of marijuana is harbinger of better days to come, and not just because we may one day all be able to light up without legal consequences.

Among the most frequently made arguments for legalization is that it is a step toward ending mass incarceration resulting from the war on drugs. Many also argue that the cost of marijuana enforcement is too high, especially given the evidence that marijuana is a less dangerous drug than alcohol.

On that second point, I agree. And if there were an opportunity to vote to legalize marijuana in New York, I would vote “yes” for that reason alone. I think that the drug war goes hand in hand with a tough on crime mindset that is too expensive to bear, both in dollars and cents and in terms of the social cost that is being paid by the communities targeted for enforcement.

However, on that first point, I beg to differ. Here’s why.

The war on drugs is a war on people. It is not now nor has it ever been just about drug enforcement. The war on drugs was declared under the Nixon administration and drug enforcement expanded dramatically under the Reagan administration at a time when illegal drug use was dropping, and before crack made it’s way into the public consciousness. The war is and always has been specifically targeted at destabilizing Black communities, from its beginnings as a strategy to confound the Black Power movement and other radical movements.

African American men have ever since been filling up our prisons, making the U.S. into the leading country on earth when it comes to incarcerating our own. When crack hit the media, the war on drugs became part of the U.S. political culture, but the war didn’t start in order to address the crack problem in the U.S. If it did, it would have targeted the largest group of crack consumers who are white. Of course, nothing like that happened as is evidenced by the grossly disproportionate rates of arrest and incarceration of African American men in particular.

It is true that African-Americans and Latinos are arrested for marijuana possession at rates wildly out of proportion to their percentages in society, much less the rates of African American and Latino marijuana usage. But the fact that Blacks and Latinos are disproportionately punished while federal data shows that whites are more likely to use marijuana is just more evidence that the war on drugs isn’t about cracking down on drugs as much as it is about cracking down on certain people.

And the Black and Latino (and in some states Native American) racial profile of drug prisoners isn’t just about where law enforcement is active, as some have suggested, asserting that racial animus is less a factor than pressure to make arrest and prosecution quotas. It’s also about plain, old fashioned racism. A 2002 University of Washington study of Seattle law enforcement practices showed that it is anti-Black stereotypes, not location, public safety priorities or citizen complaints that drives disproportionate targeting of Blacks in the war on drugs.

The study shows that complaints were far more likely to be made about deals callers suspected were going down indoors, where many have suggested most white drug crime takes place, yet police officers focused on open air deals, where it is believed more African Americans deal drugs, and in the one precinct least likely to be called out as the site of drug deals by those who called in complaints. And there, at this site, they targeted far more Blacks than whites even though whites were just as visibly dealing drugs.

So before we celebrate the end of the war on drugs, let’s consider why it started. Given that reason, we can hope that decriminalizing marijuana will cut down on drug arrests, but making it a priority strategy toward ending mass incarceration of Blacks and Latinos is a mistake. Ending mass incarceration will require us to address the racism that allowed our prisons to become warehouses for men of color in the first place.

BTW, I don’t buy the idea that decriminalization will benefit states and small business entrepreneurs. The marijuana tax in Canada only served to drive the creation of an underground marijuana market in order to avoid taxation, forcing Canada to drop the tax. And if legal trade in marijuana really is a great business opportunity, companies like Philip Morris, who did a real job on low-income communities, especially children, with cigarettes, are the far more likely beneficiaries.



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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

2 replies on “Legalizing Marijuana May Be A Good Idea, But It Is Not A Racial Justice Strategy”

“The war on drugs was initiated as part of a broader tough on crime agenda under the Nixon administration”

According to Keith Humphreys, this is a myth:

“As President, he dramatically reduced federal criminal penalties for marijuana possession and launched the largest expansion of drug addiction treatment in U.S. history. I refer of course to Richard M. Nixon, who is today widely remembered as the President who launched the “war on drugs”.”

This is not a argument that denies the Southern Strategy. The SS is about politics, not policy. Humphrey’s elaborates:

“…because he was dramatically expanding the U.S. treatment system (by 350% in just 18 months!) and cutting criminal penalties, he had to reassure his right wing that he hadn’t gone soft. So he laid on some of the toughest anti-drug rhetoric in history, including making a White House speech declaring a “war on drugs” and calling drugs “public enemy number one”. It worked so well as cover that many people remember that “tough” press event and forget that what Nixon did at it was introduce not a general or a cop or a preacher to be his drug policy chief but…a medical doctor…Broadly speaking, Nixon’s political strategy worked. He implemented one of the most progressive drug policies in U.S. history while casting it as draconian and heartless.”

If you look into his bio, I’m sure you’ll find him to be as reliable a source as possible on this matter.

I looked into this and did a little independent research. You’re right. The biggest expansion since the war was declared under Nixon was under Reagan. And, again, before crack-fear got some leaders in targeted communities asking for more enforcement and the general public believing that drug abuse was on the rise when it was actually dropping. I made some changes. See, I do pay attention to comments, even when they come from right wing, Republican-leaning libertarians:)

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