In a campaign video from October 2020, President Joe Biden reluctantly promised to decriminalize marijuana in order to attract progressive voters. Two years later, Biden has yet to follow through on this critical campaign issue.
Like a joint hanging from a fishing pole, Biden used the decriminalization of marijuana to bait and reel in voters. With the midterm election around the corner, the president needs to follow through with his promise for reform.
Currently, 38 states across the nation have legalized cannabis for medicinal use, and 18 of those states have completely legalized it for people ages 21 and over. In California, marijuana dispensaries are easily accessible considering its distinguishable appearance. Although it appears like a utopia on the West Coast, cannabis has real dystopian-like consequences in different parts of the United States.
In the 1970s, the Nixon administration began the war on drugs, which led to the criminalization of marijuana. It was labeled a schedule 1 substance by the Drug Enforcement Agency, grouped in with heroin and LSD. For law enforcement, it was open season to go after anti-war leftists and minority communities.
In 1994, John Ehrlichman, a former adviser to former President Richard Nixon, said in an interview with Harper’s Magazine, “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.”
After a bombshell statement like that, one would think that the war on drugs would have ended, but it didn't and the amount of drug related incarcerations gradually increased. Currently, it is estimated that over 40,000 people are sitting in jail cells due to marijuana related offenses, leaving the legacy of the war on drugs to continue in the modern day.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, over one-half drug arrests currently are related to marijuana and 88% of those arrests were just for possession.
Looking deeper into these numbers will show a significant racial disparity between how Black and white people are treated by law enforcement. Black people are almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in comparison to whites, according to data provided by the ACLU, even though white people and Black people smoke marijuana at the same rate.
Biden has stated that he doesn’t believe anybody should be in prison for marijuana and has proposed on his website to “decriminalize cannabis use and automatically expunge prior convictions.” This would erase the criminal records of Americans who were persecuted for possession and usage. Additionally, 68% of Americans think it should be legal to use.
Biden said he would also like to reschedule cannabis to a Schedule II substance, allowing it to be observed for medicinal benefits.
The Biden administration has the power to meet these goals and yet, after two years in office, they have chosen not to attempt fulfilling this campaign promise.
With a 42% approval rating, there is no better time for the president to pass a mutually agreed upon piece of legislation than right now. Biden must rewrite the sins of the Nixon legislation and find reconciliation for those Americans impacted by the faulty judicial and political policies.
A strategy is necessary to decriminalize marijuana. The truth is that communities of color are feeling the lasting effect of the war on drugs. Those released from prison will have difficulties finding a job due to their criminalization. Corporations are also reaping the benefits by controlling the market for marijuana.
The cannabis industry can become a working infrastructure that breaks free from the war on drugs by embracing a culture of helping those whose lives have been stolen by unjust policy and giving back to those communities.
Federal and state governments should use tax breaks to incentivize businesses to employ people with previous charges related to marijuana to curb the unemployment of those released from prison.
Local governments should also offer small business equity programs to communities of color that provide comprehensive services, such as business licensing assistance, legal assistance, tax assistance and startup grants. This is something that we currently see today in a variety of states that have legalized cannabis and though it is not perfect, it is a starting point.
The $25 billion industry can lead to potential economic growth if former felons have full access to the federal banking system. Currently, marijuana is a cash-only business because banks don’t want to be caught dealing with what is classified as an illegal substance. Allowing access to the federal banks will create new opportunities for entrepreneurs who need a line of credit and access to money to help grow their businesses.
Legalization needs to work hand-in-hand with equity. The war on drugs did suppress communities of color. It is time to make things right and uplift those communities. This could easily be a staple of Biden’s legacy, but it is up to him if he wants it.