Cannabis Legalization and Racial Justice
Earlier this year, New York passed legislation legalizing the adult use of cannabis. New Yorkers can now legally possess three ounces for any use, and can smoke marijuana in any publically-designed area where tobacco smoking is allowed, although home cultivation is still not permitted. Importantly, certain convictions – possessing up to 16 ounces or selling up to 25 grams of marijuana – will be automatically expunged from criminal records.
Not only does this law expand existing medical marijuana programs and create a licensing system for producers and distributors, but it also acts as an important step toward addressing the racial disparities in drug-related arrests. During the 1970s and 1980s, the so-called “War on Drugs” stigmatized drug use as a criminal and moral issue rather than as a public health issue.
The criminalization of drug use led to disproportionate arrest rates of low-income people of color. Higher arrest and incarceration rates do not reflect increased drug use in these communities, but rather the increased presence of law enforcement in urban areas, low-income communities, and communities of color. In every state, Black people are more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, and in some states, Black people are nearly ten times more likely to be arrested than White people. In states where marijuana has been legalized or decriminalized, arrests of racial minorities have declined markedly.
The criminalization of drug use has had lasting ramifications for many lives and communities. As noted by the Drug Policy Alliance, many people have been denied food stamps and public assistance, evicted from public housing, and lost custody of children. With the new legislation, once a marijuana conviction is expunged, it will not show up on a background check and cannot be used against an applicant in seeking employment, housing, or student loans.
The legalization of marijuana is an important step forward but much more needs to done such as providing greater resources to integrate the formerly incarcerated into society and expanding the definition of public safety beyond just the criminal law to include equal access to health care, education, employment, and housing.