4/20 Is Over, and America's Weed Laws Are Still Racist as Hell


Party's over, America.

You had your fun. Four-twenty was great: People across the nation smoked, ate, dabbed and vaped themselves into a euphoric stupor, celebrating what started as a low-key blunt session for five California high school friends in 1971 and blossomed into a global holiday.

Maybe you talked politics. Maybe you hit up the McDonald's all-day breakfast menu. Maybe you were lucky enough to see the Cannabis Cup in Denver, which housed such a staggering array of products it made you forget it was also Hitler's birthday. But one thing you didn't do — unless you were in Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Alaska or D.C. — was consume recreational marijuana legally. And that raises a much more serious dilemma. 

Despite increases in social and legal opposition, America's weed laws are still racist as hell.

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We've know this for years, but recent legalization efforts have made the conversation more complicated. Activists and policy advocates have done a remarkable job over the past decade educating Americans about the disproportionate impact cannabis criminalization has on black people. According to the Uncovery — an interactive project from the American Civil Liberties Union — a black person was 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in 2010 than a white person, despite both groups using cannabis at similar rates.

This pattern persists in every state. In Iowa, the state with the largest disparity, a black person was 8.33 times more likely to face arrest for possession. In Illinois, 7.56 times. And before Washington, D.C. legalized limited possession and consumption by voter referendum last year, black people — who constituted nearly half the city's population — were 8.05 times more likely to be arrested for possession.

In lieu of more recent comprehensive data, one might assume America's progressively more liberal attitudes toward marijuana would stem this law enforcement aggression. According to the most recent General Social Survey, 52% of Americans think cannabis should be legal. Four states plus D.C. have legalized some recreational use and cultivation, while 19 others have legalized the plant for medical use. But in reality, this hasn't made a huge difference. Marijuana arrests are still rising nationwide, constituting an ever-increasing share of total arrests, according to data reported by the Washington Post. Even in states where it's legal, its benefits — especially the financial ones — are being reaped unequally based on race.

It's important to note the many ways legalization efforts are still failing black people, despite the celebratory rhetoric surrounding them. For example, in Colorado — where voters passed a legalization amendment in November 2012 — blacks are still twice as likely to be charged with public use of marijuana than whites and more likely to be charged with "illegal cultivation" or "possession of more than an ounce," according to U.S. News.

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Not to mention that black entrepreneurs are being hedged out of cashing in on what stands to be a multibillion-dollar business opportunity in the years to come. According to NBC News, the application process for a legal marijuana sales license is still rife with the same racial politics as any other economic venture. Lack of political connections, the lifelong stain of a criminal record (which renders many black applicants arrested and charged in the heyday of criminalization ineligible), prohibitively high licensing fees and comparatively small black populations in states where weed is now legal all but ensure that money made off legal cannabis stays in white hands.

So assuming your buzz hasn't been killed by now, consider sparking that next blunt in honor of the more than 550,000 black people locked up in America's jails and prisons today (if we're only counting those who've been sentenced). A disproportionate share are there on drug charges. While a tiny number of those sentences have been commuted due to the retrospective absurdity of their lengths, they don't come close to making up for the hundreds of years stolen from black lives and families on bullshit weed charges throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

Which is ironic, because, as The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander points out at AlterNet:

"Here are white men poised to run big marijuana businesses, dreaming of cashing in big — big money, big businesses selling weed — after 40 years of impoverished black kids getting prison time for selling weed, and their families and futures destroyed. Now, white men are planning to get rich doing precisely the same thing?"

What the hell, America.

Weed may be legal in some places now, and it soon could be in many more. But never make the mistake of assuming that legalization — though a step in the right direction — is the solution to the systemic racism that's defined drug crime enforcement and most other facets of America's social and political history to begin with. That's a problem that won't go away with the signing of a bill.

Happy 420.