The War on Drugs Is Far From Over for Minorities

It’s not clear that “legalize it” will help much of anyone other than rich white entrepreneurs and affluent tokers.


The news last May was unambiguous: in Colorado, which legalized recreational marijuana in 2012, pot-related arrests were down 8 percent for white adolescents aged 10 to 17 between that year and 2014, and up 58 percent for black and Latino youth the same age, according to the Colorado Department of Public Safety. The growing theme of legalization is and was clear: leniency and riches for Steve, continued prison for LaQuan.

The report set of a mini wave of stories and posts, but little else.

Legalization remains a popular idea—61 percent of Americans support it according to a recent CBS News poll, and 88 percent support legalizing medical marijuana use. Seven states plus the District of Columbia allow the possession of marijuana for recreational use. A total of 29 allow medical dispensation. And the industry is on track to rake in $20 billion in sales by 2021.

But with the ongoing criminalization of people of color, including children and teenagers, for whom possession remains illegal in states like Colorado, plus the general black-brown lockout from dispensary business, it’s not clear that “legalize it” will help much of anyone other than rich white entrepreneurs and affluent tokers. Colorado’s racial disparity in arrests is echoed in Washington State and elsewhere, where the pre- and post-legalization rates of arrests of white and black defendants haven’t changed much at all.

Most states bar anyone with the felony drug conviction from getting the licenses needed to sell cannabis legally, meaning the brothers on the corner who perfected pot entrepreneurship get to stay on the corner and watch slick players flush with Silicon Valley cash sweep into their state and take over the dispensary business, while trying not to get arrested. And as the industry grows, it develops its own imperatives to crack down on the illegal dealers, to keep them from undercutting their prices. And thus, the high-end dispensaries become allied with the police in cracking down on the very people legalization was supposed to save.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has an attorney general, Jefferson Sessions, whose obsession with punishing people for marijuana sale and use is second only to his fixation on rinsing the country clean of dusky immigrants. Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey recently said of Sessions: “I think if you go back and you look at any number of the statements that he’s made, the positions that he’s taken, he spends a tremendous amount of time focused on marijuana, where as a matter of law enforcement, where I see the issues right now, where I see the problems, are with fentanyl and heroin.” And that’s not likely to change. Sessions, after all, thinks there’s little difference between weed and heroin.

In Colorado, like most states, drug arrests are driven by people calling 911, which is still more common when the person suspected is black or Hispanic, and neighborhood patrols remain more frequent in heavily minority neighborhoods. Convenient at a time with the attorney general is also aggressively rolling back police reform.

Our present Fox News age, where the depiction of black and brown people as a mass of gangsters and would-be felons is par for the course, and grotesque racism and physical threats against the first black president gets you a visit to the Oval Office, it is, I suppose, an awkward time to bring up rolling back the “war on drugs.” The collective sympathy the country has learned toward the rural cast of Hillbilly Elegy has yet to be learned regarding the kid from Compton or Detroit who sells weed to be able to afford a decent pair of sneakers to go to school in.

Democrats, meanwhile, have been the picture of caution when it comes to marijuana legalization, which isn’t helpful, given that study after study shows that their base’s children are far more likely to be targeted by the criminal justice system for marijuana possession than white Americans’ children, despite the two having equal rates of drug use.

Drug related arrests account for a quarter of those imprisoned in the U.S. each year, and marijuana possession charges make up roughly half of drug arrests. And that has far reaching implications for everything from the ability to get employment after release to, in some states, the right to vote.

I grew up in Denver, Colorado, and have watched from a distance as it has transformed from a cool, quiet Western city to a boomtown on the back of legal weed. And the faces of those who are profiting, and driving up rents and real estate prices in the process, don’t look like those in the mostly black suburb I grew up in, or like those in Five Points, the onetime downtown ghetto that’s now a chichi destination for fancy hipster living.

We have a drug problem in the United States, and it isn’t people who smoke weed. It’s the fact that weed is about to become just another source of obscene corporate profits and racial disparity in a country that already has too much of both.