By Katelyn Skye Bennett | Editor-in-chief

This month marks two years since Chicago and the state of Illinois legalized recreational marijuana. While 74% of American states have now accepted the drug for medical use, about half the states in the U.S. still criminalize marijuana. 

Despite similar cannabis consumption rates nationally, Black Americans are arrested at a rate 3.6 times higher than white Americans. This disparity is additionally significant because 90% of marijuana arrests are for possession, and 43% of all drug arrests are for marijuana. Thus, the majority of folks arrested for marijuana possession are people of color. 

This is an example of systemic racism, which impacts not only individuals but also entire communities.

As of the latest reports, the FBI also arrests more people for medical marijuana use than for violent crimes.

The Ironic History of Marijuana in the U.S.

The use of cannabis as a recreational drug in North America, or at least the written history of it, is relatively recent. Christopher Columbus allegedly brought cannabis to the Americas in 1492, though there is evidence that certain strains were native to the Americas as well.

Cannabis was a mandated product for Virginian farmers in 1619, common for centuries due to the many uses of hemp. A couple Founding Fathers also grew it. Cannabis was freely available for medicinal use in the late 1800s. However, individual states began to restrict the drug in the early 20th century, following the alcohol prohibition, and it has only begun to be legalized again in the past 25 years.

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According to Marijuana and the Law, marijuana was villainized and feared by 20th century Americans after being introduced to its recreational use by Mexican immigrants. Fear of Mexicans was prevalent during the Depression, and immigration laws specifically excluded Mexicans at the time. 

The Marihuana Tax Stamp Act of 1937 – spelled with an h – criminalized the entire cannabis industry on a federal level. The allowed permit process to grow cannabis existed in name more than practice. The Stamp Act remained the law of the land for several decades, until 1969 when it was ruled unconstitutional. 

It was then replaced by the 1970 Controlled Substance Act, where it was designated in the same category as heroin. This federal law is still in place, although hemp was removed from its list of illicit substances in 2018.

Over time, Marijuana and the Law informs, certain states began to update their own legislation. In 1996, California was the first state to allow cannabis for medical use, and many other states followed suit. Years later in 2009, President Obama sent a memo saying not to prosecute medical distributors.

Cannabis became legally available for recreational use in Washington in 2012. Colorado celebrated its first day of legal recreational use on January 1, 2014, and the nation of Uruguay was the first country to legalize it recreationally that same year, with Canada following suit in 2018.

Back in the U.S., cannabis remains illegal on a federal level, despite a few updates to legislation. However, the laws have been rapidly adapting state by state. 

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According to DISA, a corporation whose services include running background checks, cannabis has been fully legalized in 18 states as of December 2021. Nine states allow medical cannabis and have decriminalized it, ten allow medical use but have not changed any laws about past or present recreational use, and two have decriminalized it but not allowed medical use. 

Decriminalizing cannabis means people can possess small amounts but does not allow for its production. 

Seven states allow cannabis only in the form of cannabidiol, or CBD, which is derived from the plant but does not cause a high. Both medical and recreational uses are prohibited and considered criminal in those states. South Carolina, Kansas, Wyoming, and Idaho still view any form of cannabis as entirely illegal.

Even where cannabis is legal, its production does not necessarily benefit those who use it, at least not financially. Instead, the industry is disproportionately white, while Black and Brown folks still suffer from crimes that are no longer illegal. 

Indigenous tribes operate apart from states but under federal law, and the CDC has provided public health information regarding cannabis use within those sovereign nations.

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Decriminalize All Cannabis

For the 23 states that have not yet decriminalized cannabis, doing so is the next step toward equity. Residents can petition their representatives toward this end.

Cannabis legalization does not negate the fact that Americans were formerly incarcerated over cannabis in the past, and it does not recompense for the families and communities that were disrupted by their forced absence. It also does not bring back those who were deported over possession

However, states like New York have taken action to wipe remaining sentences and expunge records as a step toward reparations.

For each state that has not issued reparations to those formerly arrested or incarcerated over cannabis – whether or not they have fully legalized it both recreationally and medically – this is the next step toward justice.

Reparations can come in all different forms that tangibly affect the direct recipients, their families, and their communities. Pressure from citizens with voting power can help impact this change.

That being said, even if every U.S. state fully legalized marijuana in all its forms and made reparations to citizens, immigrants who have not yet acquired citizenship could still be punished for marijuana-related activity.

This means an entire industry is off limits to legal permanent residents and other immigrants in the U.S. It also means their chances of remaining safely in this country are at risk.

Legalizing cannabis on a federal level would help protect immigrants as well as citizens.

Finally, creating more programs like Oakland’s Cannabis Equity Program, which empowers those previously arrested over cannabis, would also help to build racial equity in states that have legalized marijuana.

Supporting dispensaries owned by minoritized groups is a practical way for 420-friendly individuals to put their money where their mouth is as they pursue racial equity.

Recreational marijuana use has led to a substantial increase of traffic deaths, using Colorado as a case study, and it is not safe for anyone who is pregnant or breastfeeding. Underage use is also shown to affect brain development. Please use with care.


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