Beyond 4/20, marijuana is not fun and games

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April 20 is national cannabis culture day. To people who love marijuana, it’s often a playful opportunity to celebrate. To the media, it’s often a time to make jokes or roll eyes.

It’s time to get real about marijuana policy, and the 650,000 people still arrested each year for marijuana offenses in the United States.

While most white people have gotten away with pot smoking, even before marijuana was made legal in 10 states and the District of Columbia, black and brown communities have been devastated. Black and brown people use marijuana at the same rates as white people, but are arrested for that use several times as often. In some U.S. counties, nearly half of all arrests are marijuana-related.

These arrests are not only a waste of law enforcement resources – over $3 billion is spent each year on marijuana enforcement alone – but have ruined people’s lives. An arrest and conviction can mean huge barriers to employment, public housing and loans. It can also mean incarceration and deportation. Marijuana prohibition has also been an easy excuse for over-policing, including surveillance and frequent stops that lead to not only arrests, but also police seizure of property, and in some cases, deadly encounters.  This is far from a party for low-income communities who have been most impacted.

Take the case of Bernard Noble, for example, who was released on parole last year after spending eight years in prison in Louisiana for possessing two joints. Or that of Colyssa Stapleton in New York, whose daughter was removed from her custody for months following a false marijuana possession arrest.

Meanwhile, states that have legalized marijuana openly promote 420 visitors guides for anyone over 21 to enjoy marijuana-friendly hotels, tours and even classes. These vast disparities in the way that police treat people who smoke marijuana must end. There is a better way forward.

Legalization and regulation of adult marijuana use is proven to protect public health and safety, and dramatically reduce the harms associated with prohibition. Arrests for marijuana have plummeted in places like Colorado, Oregon, Nevada and Washington, saving hundreds of millions of dollars while sparing people from being branded with lifelong criminal records. These states where marijuana is legal are using the money from sales to fund school districts, substance abuse treatment and prevention and other important public health and community revitalization initiatives. Roads are no less safe, and youth use has not increased.

It is time to remove criminal penalties for marijuana, and instead establish a responsibly regulated market with a strong focus on protecting public health and safety.

Legalization gives states a chance to define the rules by requiring protections such as tamper resistant packaging and bans on advertising to minors. There are also labeling requirements so that consumers know exactly how much THC is in the products they are purchasing, versus baking a batch of brownies at home which could go in any number of unpredictable directions. It’s impossible to control a product that is entirely underground.

By legalizing, states start to shrink the size of the illegal market in marijuana. While this will not happen immediately, there is already evidence that legalization of medical marijuana has reduced the influx of marijuana from Mexico. When alcohol prohibition ended, the illegal market in alcohol persisted for some time, but you rarely hear about it now.

Legalization also gives states an opportunity to begin repairing the harms of prohibition, by expunging the records of those who have past marijuana convictions and reinvesting in the most impacted communities. Effective regulation also means establishing paths for market access for those communities, such as micro-licenses to help low-income people enter the trade, or incubator programs to support small businesses.

Even with 10 states and Washington, D.C. having legal marijuana, there are still 247 million Americans living under marijuana prohibition. Arrests for drug possession still occur at a rate four times that of all violent crimes combined, with marijuana making up half of those arrests. We need to take this issue out of the criminal justice system, including for people on parole and probation who lose their release because they test positive for marijuana. The only way to do that effectively is legalization.

Right now New York and New Jersey are both considering legalization, and we urge legislators to vote yes. The federal government, too, should follow the examples of Canada and Uruguay and legalize nationwide.

Meanwhile, the next time 4/20 comes and goes, remember that marijuana is not just about fun or jokes. Marijuana prohibition ruins lives. People will smoke marijuana whether it’s legal or not. Legalization just allows black and brown communities to not be targeted for something that most white people can do without a second thought. Let’s level the playing field and do what’s right for public health and social justice. 

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