Pardons for marijuana convictions help, but we need more

Adrienne Lawrence
Liberal Opinion

Adrienne Lawrence

Legal commentator
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President Biden has announced he will issue pardons to thousands of people convicted of “simple possession” of marijuana under federal law. The House of Representatives has passed legislation that would decriminalize marijuana at the federal level and remove penalties for certain cannabis-related offenses. Another proposal, also controversial, is the idea of giving people with prior marijuana convictions a priority when applying for licenses to open up retail cannabis stores, as advocated by New York’s Governor Kathy Hochul (D). Straight Arrow News contributor Adrienne Lawrence describes why this is a good idea given our history of targeting people of color for marijuana violations.

It has been well known for a long time that despite the similarity of cannabis usage rates between Whites and non-Whites, well, it’s Black people being arrested for cannabis offenses at a rate of nearly four to one. That’s per the Brookings Institute. 

Now those convictions have killed dreams and harmed lives, far eclipsing any potential danger presented from the use of the drug. Marijuana doesn’t bring anywhere near the level of harm presented by what heroin, yet the law classifies them as the same. 

And you can’t even compare the toxins in alcohol yet it is readily available at every turn. Yet it’s criminalization of marijuana that has been largely waged as a tool to maintain systems of oppression, which is why our leaders are using it. 

We need police to be retrained. If cannabis is going to be available to consumers’ business licenses, they should be made readily accessible to business owners from marginalized groups. 

Communities that have been ravaged by this war on drugs should reap benefits from cannabis sales tax allowing for reinvestment into those communities. These types of comprehensive efforts, these are what we need to go beyond just pardons and expungements. It’s necessary. I sincerely urge you to advocate for your leaders out there for this type of change, one that’s not only meaningful but also reparative.

Joe Biden’s about face on marijuana is landmark. 

And last week’s announcement? Well, the President took executive action by pardoning all prior federal offenses of simple marijuana possession, urging governors to do the same for state offenses, and also asking the Department of Health and Human Services to review how it schedules the drug under federal law. 

Now, these changes are very much long overdue, and they’re rather meaningful, but they’re also not momentous, and they’re also not what we deserve. 

When it comes to addressing marijuana issues, our government needs to go far beyond pardons to really heal the social inequities that these laws created. First, that requires acknowledging the racist history behind marijuana laws. Hemp fiber for cannabis, well, it was resourceful in our society. It was used to make clothes, paper, rope. The US Constitution is on hemp paper. 

And there were no restrictions on cannabis until the early 1900s when the U.S. saw an influx of Mexican immigrants, many of whom brought the practice of smoking cannabis. It also became heavily associated with jazz musicians who were predominantly black. 

So this Reefer Madness propaganda that popped up in 1936? Well, politicians used it to portray marijuana as the gateway drug, claiming that it caused black and brown people to rape women and cause other mele. 

Now, that led to, you know, leaders passing laws that criminalize use of the drug. And of course, that meant that the government could needlessly throw black and brown people in the carceral state. 

And that it did, and it still does. Biden’s pardon for simple possession of marijuana, it’s largely a joke.

There are very, very few federal convictions for simple possession of marijuana. Rather, the vast majority of such charges and convictions are at the state level. It’s also grand to go at state governors to grant pardons, but let’s be real here. Any governor who appreciated that marijuana laws were merely products of the tools of white supremacy, well, they would have granted pardons and declined to enforce the laws long ago. 

It has been well known for a long time that despite the similarity of cannabis usage rates between whites and non-whites, well, it’s black people being arrested for cannabis offenses at a rate of nearly four to one. That’s per the Brookings Institute. 

Now those convictions have killed dreams and harmed lives, far eclipsing any potential danger presented from the use of the drug. Marijuana doesn’t bring anywhere near the level of harm presented by what heroin, yet the law classifies them as the same. 

And you can’t even compare the toxins in alcohol yet it is readily available at every turn. Yet it’s criminalization of marijuana that has been largely waged as a tool to maintain systems of oppression, which is why our leaders are using it. 

We need police to be retrained. If cannabis is going to be available to consumers’ business licenses, they should be made readily accessible to business owners from marginalized groups. 

Communities that have been ravaged by this war on drugs should reap benefits from cannabis sales tax allowing for reinvestment into those communities. These types of comprehensive efforts, these are what we need to go beyond just pardons and expungements. It’s necessary. I sincerely urge you to advocate for your leaders out there for this type of change, one that’s not only meaningful but also reparative.

 


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