American laws against marijuana possession, sale, and use are crumbling. Though it is happening state-by-state now, it is only a matter of time before the entire country faces legal weed as a 21st century reality. But this path toward legalization begs the question—why was it illegal in the first place, especially in light of an emerging scientific, medical, and social consensus that it’s, well, not that dangerous? Why have marijuana prohibitions?
The genesis of the US ‘war on weed’ began with the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger, in the mid-1930s. He was one of the first to connect marijuana use with racial minorities and other “degenerate” groups, arguing that their bad behavior, sexual wantonness, laziness, and communist tendencies all stemmed from using pot. Similar in style to racial scares involving immigration, pre-World War II anti-drug propaganda stirred up dual feelings in whites, who began to connect being anti-drug with being anti-black. Fabricated polls and medical studies provided false evidence for Anslinger’s racist anti-weed campaign. A federal ban on marijuana was enacted in response to this campaign in 1937. Henry Hearst, newspaper mogul, perhaps put it most dramatically: “[Weed is] the deadly, dreadful poison that racks and tears not only the body, but the very heart and soul of every human being who once becomes a slave to it in any of its cruel and devastating forms.”
Fast forward to the 2010s. The American Civil Liberties Union has found, in the last few years, striking racial disparities in marijuana arrests; most notable of their findings includes a sobering statistic: blacks are almost 4 times as likely to be arrested for weed possession as whites, even as other data suggests usage levels are roughly the same between the two races. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws for marijuana possession and distribution are also putting more nonviolent offenders behind bars, and for longer periods of time. The ACLU has also concluded that even staggering levels of arrests have not significantly impacted marijuana use or supply. This disproportionate legal implementation of archaic drug law has had a negative effect on black communities, where it is estimated that half of all black men will be arrested by their early 20s. On average, around 60% of America’s prisoners are racial minorities. Setting aside drug crime, most cannot afford to post bail, many suffer from mental illness, and others are merely debtors.
As a nation, we have to do better. It is a miscarriage of justice for communities of color to be on the receiving end of a lengthy history of racist drug laws. It is also a global embarrassment that America has 25% of the world’s prison population, the highest of any nation—a phenomenon that goes hand-in-hand with tough-on-crime drug laws. It is shameful that in 2016, the rhetoric of the 1930s still lingers, even if not expressed in overtly racist terms like Anslinger’s. There might be other issues to be addressed when it comes to racial justice, but drug law reform and race-based legal implementation and policing should be at the top of the list.