Not many people are willing to admit this, but the federal prohibition on marijuana started on unjust and racist terms. Passed in 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act was the first legislation to allow for federal criminal penalties for anyone caught with possession, production or sales. Fast forward to 2020. Almost everyone is smoking marijuana and there is even mainstream TV programing centered on the once demonized narcotic. Even the Today Show aired a story about “marijuana moms,” and how these white mothers were using weed to “make them better moms.” It’s clear we’ve come to the group consensus that marijuana is a pretty harmless drug, if it’s even considered a drug at all. So then why is that people of color, mainly Black Americans, are still being incarcerated for the drug? Why are they still serving their sentences for nonviolent, marijuana charges? Let’s delve into this current hypocritical issue we’re dealing with here.
Despite white Americans and Black Americans using marijuana at the same rates, Black marijuana smokers are often the ones to be arrested, fined or incarcerated. And that’s simply because Black and Hispanic Americans are 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana, according to an ACLU Report. Even in places where Black and Hispanic Americans only make up less than 10 percent of the population, they still account for the majority of marijuana arrests. And while some may try to argue that they’re arrested for the amount or that maybe they had intent to sell, data collected from 2018 shows that 92 percent of all marijuana arrests were for possession.
Drug arrests and the severity of the charge is often up to the officer’s discretion, which means that there is clearly racism happening in this space. It’s in the numbers, it’s on paper, and it’s in pop culture. We often see our favorite celebrities in the legal state of California puffing and passing on social media seldom mentioning the bigger issue we have here, and that is that historically, this country’s legal system tokenized marijuana as an excuse to arrest people of color.
A big proponent of the War on Drugs was the first appointed Federal Bureau of Narcotics Director Harry Ansligner. He launched an all out war on the plant, often associating the drug with violence, rape, murder and other atrocities. Most notably, he spewed racist commentary to make the country not only fear the plant, but the groups he felt were smoking it.
“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filiphinos and entertainers,” CBS news quotes Anslinger. “Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”
This type of fear-mongering allowed for the federal prohibition and mass incarceration of communities of color. This only continued through the years with new and more dangerous narcotics coming into the mix. Richard Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Agency and labeled drug addiction “Public Enemy No.1” during his term. But this over policing led to the increase in arrests of people of color.
Moving into the 80s with President Ronald Regan, the racism becomes a bit more blatant. Of course, cocaine and crack-cocaine addictions were a huge public health problem at the time. During his term, Regan allocated a whopping $1.7 billion of public funding to fight the “drug war.” He followed up by setting mandatory minimums for drug offenses. And this is where things get interesting because the minimum sentence for cocaine – predominantly used by upper class, white Americas – was far less than the sentence for crack, the same drug by nature. The only difference between powder cocaine and crack cocaine is that crack is far less potent, so one would think cocaine would carry the longer term.
The War on Drugs has always been inherently racist, but with the new laissez-faire attitude toward marijuana these racial disparities in arrests and sentencing cannot be more clear. There are still thousands of Black people sitting in jail cells for nonviolent, possession charges yet it is totally cool for Elon Musk and Joe Rogan to share a blunt on camera.
Luckily, there are many organizations fighting for those unjustly sentenced for a drug that is pretty much no longer considered a drug. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws has an entire page with petitions, contacts and more.