How Racism Made and Might Be Keeping Marijuana Illegal

In mid May, the U.S House Rules Committee voted against two amendments that would have allowed for extensive research to be conducted concerning the ways in which marijuana could be used as an alternative to prescription in association with pain management. The decision essentially maintained that marijuana is still a schedule 1 drug, possessing no medicinal properties, despite abundant research suggesting otherwise. Despite the modern day prohibition, marijuana was once a legal substance until racially motivated legislation helped register the drug as an illegal substance in an effort to detain people of color. Despite public opinion concerning marijuana use growing more liberal, the drug not only remains illicit today, but also continues to disproportionately affect people of color.  

Prior to 1937, marijuana enjoyed a 5000 year history as a therapeutic, medical, and recreational tool across many cultures, legally. However, things began to change with the emergence of Mexican immigrants in U.S after the Mexican Revolution. Among other things, many Mexican migrants brought with them a stigma for abusing marijuana, a drug known to Americans as cannabis, an agent that could be found in various medicines nationwide. Increased economic disparity during the Great Depression increased tension between Mexican immigrants and traditional American citizens over things such as resources and employment. What followed was a campaign that functioned to demonize these Mexican migrants and their way of life. One of these methods of demonization was the mischaracterization of marijuana use and it’s impacts. During hearings on marijuana, it was suggested that marijuana use led to more violence amongst POC and that it could even cause men of color to lust after White women. Thus, marijuana became illegal in 1937, with the passing of the Marijuana Tax Act, making the use and sale of marijuana illegal and consequently enabling law enforcement to detain and deport Mexican immigrants and jail POC. Today, it would appear that the racial ties associated with marijuana arrests are still very much pronounced.

The percentage of Americans concerned with the dangers of marijuana use has decreased dramatically over the past 20 years. According to a 2016 article by CBS news, titled “Marijuana Use and Support for Legal Marijuana Continue to Climb,” in 1979 27% of polled Americans agreed that marijuana use should remain an illegal. Even as recently as 2011, a slight majority of Americans opposed marijuana legalization. However, in more recent years, studies suggest that the majority of Americans do, in fact, favor marijuana legalization. According to the aforementioned article, 59% of men and 54% of women nationwide are proponents of marijuana legalization. 72% of adults under 35 believe that recreational marijuana use should be legalized. Senior citizens, however, represent the greatest proportion of skeptics. Only 3% of Americans 65 and over agree that marijuana use should remain illegal.

Conspiracy theorist might argue that marijuana’s schedule 1 status simply functions to put more Americans in jail. In the United States, drug violations represent the majority of arrest. Of these arrest, marijuana was involved in an alarming 44.9% of violations. Moreover, according to data released by the FBI in 2014, 1 in 20 arrest in the U.S were concerned with simple possession, a rate equivalent to over 1 marijuana related arrest per minute. In short, according to the FBI data, about 1,700 people are arrested in relation to marijuana possession a day.

Such an aggressive investment in police work aimed at confronting the “issue” of marijuana has disproportionately impacted people of color. In the United States, Black Americans are nearly four times more likely than their White counterparts to be arrested on charges of marijuana possession. In highly populated cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, police arrest Blacks for marijuana possession seven times more than Whites. Most of these arrest were a result of an individual being stopped, frisked, and searched, as opposed to catching individuals smoking publicly.

Moreover, according to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice in New York City, minorities accounted for 9 out of 10 arrest concerned with suspicious of marijuana possession. What makes this data even more alarming is the nearly identical rates of marijuana use between Whites, Blacks and Hispanics reported by the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse and Health.

Ultimately, marijuana’s status as a schedule 1 illicit drug has its foundations in racism, and would appear to continue to operate as a coercive force that impacts POC more severely than White Americans. Skeptics might argue that minorities are more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession because many minorities reside in communities where crime and the presence of law enforcement are more pronounced. But, quick question: what came first, the crimes or the police?