Why I Support Marijuana Legalization, But Not as a Strategy for Winning Racial Justice


The recent spate of editorials in the New York Times promoting marijuana legalization has generated a lot of talk about federal action to end marijuana enforcement. The Times editorial board’s concern about this issue is summed up as follows,

The social costs of the marijuana laws are vast. There were 658,000 arrests for marijuana possession in 2012, according to F.B.I. figures, compared with 256,000 for cocaine, heroin and their derivatives. Even worse, the result is racist, falling disproportionately on young black men, ruining their lives and creating new generations of career criminals.

I agree, though that phrase “career criminals” is deeply problematic. I strongly favor legalization of marijuana. I’ve held this belief since the 1970s and 80s, when the marijuana trade in Hawaii, where I grew up, grew so large it would become the fourth largest industry in the islands after tourism, the military, and construction, but ahead of “legitimate” agricultural enterprises like sugar and pineapple.

When trade in a product becomes that commonplace, everyone knows someone who is involved in it, if they aren’t in it themselves. And when you know people who commit long-term to selling marijuana, you understand that they aren’t doing it for fun, or just to generate extra income out of which to buy luxury items like cars and vacations. Folk are in the trade because they need the money.

Growing and selling marijuana is labor intensive and risky. And the risks are many, including crop failures, poachers, cops, and the IRS (who will eventually go after you for tax evasion if you have income but no job). Given the choice between selling marijuana and holding down a decent, good paying job, most would choose the latter.

And, when you know so many people in the trade, you also know that the crackdown on marijuana has had grossly disproportionate impacts on poor people. Here in the continental U.S., people of color, especially African Americans (who use illegal drugs, including marijuana, at a lower rate than whites, yet are nonetheless more than three times more likely to be arrested for drug possession) have paid by far the highest price for marijuana enforcement. And this is true even when the lion’s share of the capital driving the marijuana trade is coming from white consumers.

But, while I support legalization as an incremental step in the right direction, I think we are wrong to promote legalization as a means of achieving racial justice. Making that claim minimizes the very real problem of structural racism that has made the war on drugs such a hugely devastating law enforcement strategy for Black people.

The legalization of marijuana, in my opinion, would not lead to less over-policing, racial profiling, or over-incarceration of Black and brown people. What relief legalization would provide, and I do believe there would be some immediate relief, would be mostly temporary.

Why? The New York Times report on reader response to their legalization editorials sums it up nicely,

Times readers favor legalization for the same reasons the Times editorial board does: They think the criminalization of marijuana has ruined lives; that the public health risks have been overstated; and that law enforcement should focus its resources on graver problems.

Those “graver problems” bother me. They bother me because the illegal drug trade is as much an economic issue as it is public health issue. My experience growing up in a drug economy tells me that folk turn to illegal means of making money when legal jobs aren’t available. And decent paying legal jobs have rarely been harder to find than right now.

As a sociologist friend of mine recently reminded me, prison is a form of disguised unemployment. That’s part of the reason programs meant to reduce recidivism so often don’t work. Without a job, people are often forced to commit crimes, like selling marijuana. Once convicted of that crime, a criminal record can make you unemployable. Those who’ve been to prison too often end up back in prison, and keeping them there is a way of managing unemployment, even if this effect is, perhaps, mostly incidental.

If we added incarcerated Black people to the unemployment rolls, Black unemployment statistics would be noticeably higher (and it’s already twice that of whites). This would more accurately reflect the status of Black people in the U.S. labor market. Large numbers of poor Black people have been structurally excluded from the legitimate economy, ironically in part because Black people as a class won the right to ordinary worker protections nationwide via the Civil Rights Movement. This made other excluded workers, like undocumented migrants, cheaper, more compliant, and, following the logic of the market, more desirable.

Being excluded from decent employment opportunities will drive some people to drug dealing. Unless we deal with this reality, legalizing marijuana will only drive current, low-end marijuana dealers to “graver problems” for which there are often more stringent punishments and less public sympathy. From the perspective of a poor person dependent on the marijuana trade for their living, legalization is a dead-end. Richer people with the capital to invest in grow operations, licensing, retail stores, etc., will come in after ordinary drug dealers have suffered all the risk involved in developing marijuana markets illegally and squeeze them out.

Those of us concerned with racial justice must ask, “squeezed out to where?”



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