As more states across the nation usher in the legalization of marijuana and with New York celebrating the legalization of recreational use March 31, we must recognize how the war on drugs has disproportionality harmed communities of color.
The war on drugs, a global initiative led by the United States, aimed to decrease the illicit sale and use of drugs by increasing prison sentences for drug dealers and users. By design, the war on drugs targeted people of color, leaving them more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, convicted, harshly sentenced and stuck with a lifelong criminal record. Nearly 80% of people in federal prison and about 60% of people in state prison for drug offenses are Black or Latinx. Black people and Indigenous people are more likely to be killed by law enforcement during police interactions.
Efforts to legalize marijuana are meaningless without offers of reparations. In 2020 alone, New Yorkers of color — mostly from Black and Latinx communities — made up approximately 95% of marijuana arrests. The New York State Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act attempts to repair some of these damages by automatically expunging the records of people with previous marijuana-related charges that are no longer criminalized. Though it is too early to see its effects, expungement at the very least offers people a chance to start anew.
Marijuana convictions can be lifelong prison sentences, be it physically or mentally imprisoned. They can prevent people from job opportunities, drive them away from their families and invite them into the criminal system. For a drug that, at least on the surface, appears to be safer than alcohol, why do we so heavily criminalize it? People who have been convicted of far worse crimes have received less severe sentences than people with marijuana convictions. Brock Turner was infamously convicted of three sexual assault felonies and was sentenced to six months’ incarceration. He was released three months early.
Drug convictions, for substances with a high potential for abuse, require rehabilitation, not inequitable criminal sentencing. The legalization of marijuana is a beginning — we must now continue the conversation to undo the suffering caused by previous legislation and build communities of support for those with drug addictions. Celebrate legalization as a first step, but do not forget those whose lives were stolen by severe marijuana convictions.