Reflecting on the War on Drugs During Black History Month

 In Decriminalization, Politics

Image: Nixon signing the Drug Abuse Office and Treatment Act, 1972. (Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 66394272)

As we round out Black History Month, we feel it is imperative to address the role of cannabis prohibition in the oppression of Black and Brown communities. The War on Drugs was built on racism. At this pivotal moment in history, it is especially important to reflect on the racist laws that have defined our industry. 

The movement to criminalize cannabis use and link it to communities of color began decades before Richard Nixon became president. However, his administration claimed “frequent drug use” in Black and Brown communities. They did this in order to justify a draconian “law and order” campaign, culminating in the War on Drugs.

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and Black people,” said former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlich. “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.”

What was started by Nixon in 1971 was cemented by Reagan with his Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986. This act required a mandatory five years in prison for non-violent offenders. It existed to target Black people and put them into prison. Not only this, but an article published in 2018 by the UALR William H. Bowen School of Law states that the War on Drugs has cost U.S. taxpayers over $2.5 trillion.

The Modern Effects of the War on Drugs

The War on Drugs is not just a movement of the past. According to the ACLU, there were over 8 million cannabis-related arrests in the U.S between 2001 and 2010. That’s one bust every 37 seconds. A federal national survey on drug use found that 49% of white adults consume cannabis at least once in their lifetime, compared to 42% of Black adults. Yet, Black Americans are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession – even though their use is roughly equal. In 2010 alone, there were 889,133 cannabis-related arrests – 300,000 more than arrests for all violent crimes.

The War on Drugs and criminalization of cannabis has, quite simply, served as a way for the police to target people of color.

Cannabis convictions make it harder for people to reenter society. Once convicted, they are often legally denied access to employment, housing and education. Because of the racist enforcement of these laws, Black Americans are much more likely to be affected. Michelle Alexander shared a harsh reality in an article she wrote for PBS: “Today there are more African Americans under correctional control in prison or jail, on probation or parole, than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the civil war began.”

Looking Toward the Future

There is no doubt that these laws need to change. If we can start releasing these individuals and expunging these records, we can begin to make real and positive improvements. We support the Black Lives Matter movement and its quest for social, racial and economic justice. We acknowledge that people of color are disproportionately affected by cannabis criminalization. It is important to embrace our responsibility to right these injustices.

The introduction of the MORE Act is already paving the road for the future. It would introduce federal legislation that would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and enact reforms related to cannabis. This includes the expungement of nonviolent cannabis-related prior convictions, is already paving a road for the future.

Michael Thompson drives a car for the first time in 25 years and closes on a new home – photo courtesy of the Last Prisoner Project.

Last summer, we wrote a blog post to announce our partnership with the Last Prisoner Project. The three main initiatives of the Last Prisoner Project are “prisoner release, record clearing through clemency and expungement, and reentry programs.” The organization also uses a portion of funds raised to lobby for social justice criteria within states that are currently forming tax-and-regulate legislation.

The Last Prisoner project is one of the many advocacy organizations that helped fight for the recent release of Michael Thompson, a Black man who spent more than two decades in prison for marijuana sales in Michigan. The sentence was unduly harsh after he sold three pounds to a police informant. Following his release, Thompson hopes to be a voice for incarcerated people and an advocate for prison reform. Thompson’s case will only be the beginning. You can read about additional LPP success stories here.

What can you do now? You can follow The Last Prisoner Project on Instagram or Facebook or donate to contribute to their efforts to free more incarcerated cannabis prisoners.

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