Weed legalization highlights how progressive policies deceptively re-entrench anti-Black dynamics
Our country has a well-documented history of proposing self-serving ideas to the public and advertising them as a benefit for everyone.
By Mark Matlock
The possibility of weed legalization can be exciting to young people like me. Especially since our country’s current policies regarding weed have increased discrimination already fueled by the War on Drugs. But excitement can make us forget that being able to consume weed doesn’t get rid of the overt anti-Blackness that comes from the criminalization of it.
America wants to have its cake and eat it too, continuing to ruin people’s lives with drug convictions while also enjoying the economic benefits that come from taxing it. This has allowed states to separate the negative aspects attached to people of color from the benefits it brings government and dispensaries.
Since smoking weed has historically been painted as a Black activity, with the intent being to attach it to criminality. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics made no secret of portraying weed as something that Black people used to ruin society. Its commissioner, Harry Anslinger, once said “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos… Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.” This mentality eventually evolved into the War On Drugs, which (unsurprisingly) turned out to be yet another policy that was supposed to help our country, but ended up devastating Black communities.
Our country has a well-documented history of proposing self-serving ideas to the public and advertising them as a benefit for everyone. But once you scratch below the shiny surface of many policies, the truth will emerge, and it usually reeks of anti-Blackness.
For most of us, being Black in America means advocating for liberal causes and hoping they will help resolve problems plaguing our community. But it seems like a never-ending game of cat-and-mouse, creating solutions that whiteness usually has a loophole for. Once we read the fine print, we usually end up disappointed. We fought for police body cameras but, as we saw in the Stephon Clark incident, officers can simply mute them to cover their tracks. And there has been minimal to no action taken to ensure accountability for officers even when they are caught on camera (Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Terence Crutcher etc.).
We are there to advocate for the current gun control movement, but the huge media attention it now receives was nowhere to be seen when Black students voiced their fears about their schools, or the militarization of police. Progressive policies have a strange way of being progressively white.
Take weed legalization in Seattle for example. The Washington Post reports that during the first six months of the city’s weed legalization in 2014, Black people were disproportionately fined more for public weed use (receiving 40% of fines). While it was deemed too early to say definitively that a pattern was occurring, this news should have set precedent for reform.
Let that sink in: the government is making money by disproportionately fining Black people for publically smoking the same weed they enabled for sale in the first place. Only in 2018 has Seattle finally decided to erase misdemeanor weed convictions. Four years later. Shouldn’t a substance be decriminalized before becoming available for sale to the public? Combine this with the fact that federal law still classifies marijuana as a controlled substance, and it’s no wonder that legalization primarily benefits certain segments of the population.
In California, federal law leads to border control seizing weed at the state’s checkpoints. 40% of those seizures are of an ounce or less, which is confusing since California state law allows a person to possess an ounce. In January, Attorney General Jeff Sessions decided to end an Obama policy that removed weed from the list of federal drug enforcement priorities. This paves the way for federal prosecutors to hand down severe convictions, even in states where weed is legal. And we all know the American court system has never shied away from an opportunity to give Black people a criminal record.
Even if people want to indulge, new taxes and fees hinder them from purchasing. In Oakland, the 6% state sales tax is coupled with the county’s 3.25% tax. Once you add that to the state’s separate 15% weed tax and Oakland’s 10%, that clocks in at 34% in added fees. By comparison, California taxes wine and beer at twenty cents per gallon. This seems counterproductive since the point of legalizing weed was supposedly to encourage people away from the black market, but the economics of this industry—which will hit $24.5 billion in sales by 2021—points to other reasons for legalization.
Would weed have as much support if the majority of dispensaries were Black-owned? That’s for you to determine. But one thing is certain: the astronomical start-up fees systematically shut Black people out. Buzzfeed estimated that, as of 2017, less than 1% of nationwide dispensaries are Black-owned. The fee for licensing alone is $14,000 dollars in Colorado and an egregious $20,000 in New Jersey. In Arkansas, dispensary applicants must prove an excess of $200,000 dollars and in Nevada $250,000 dollars of capital is needed. In many industries it’s expensive to start a business, but the lack of people of color in the marijuana industry is particularly ironic since Black and Latinx people are main targets for weed arrests and incarcerations.
America expects Black people to buy weed that’s taxed and regulated (to the high heavens) by the same government who punishes us for smoking it, while countless Black people still sit in jail for possessing the exact same substance that’s now state-approved. That’s laughable. Legalizing weed is America’s way of putting a band-aid over a wound that’s still gushing blood. We need to fix the wound first.
Until we confront the root of the problem, anti-Blackness will always be able to adapt to new policies. Progressive and liberal policies are not only not exempt from this rule, but perhaps exemplify it best. As long as legalization takes the focus off of decriminalization, and the government collects taxes on weed it will continue punishing people for consumption, we can expect the issues plaguing our communities to continue.
There is potential for real benefits by loosening restrictions on marijuana, but we shouldn’t settle for “steps in the right” direction that re-entrench existing dynamics. It is not good policy until Black people are able to reap benefits. So when weed finally becomes legal in your city, please understand why everyone may not be jumping for joy. We have seen what happens when liberal policies are enacted without a conscious effort to amend how it affects people of color.
Mark is a 22-year-old who wakes up everyday, eager to make a racist uncomfortable.