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Has Decriminalizing Marijuana Worked?

Marijuana has undoubtedly experienced an image change as it is legalized in more places. Two out of three Americans support the legalization of marijuana in all age groups and political affiliations. Whether it is for its potential medicinal value or to reduce the crisis of mass incarceration, the nation as a whole has become more comfortable with the idea of decriminalizing marijuana. While the War on Drugs seems to be coming to an end, the lasting impacts are still very present and even growing in severity. Evidence shows that the corporatization of marijuana has become a new avenue of financial inequality, and it is clear that the solution to repairing the damage in black and brown communities due to past discriminatory policies will involve much more than just legalization.

President Richard Nixon began the War on Drugs in the 1970s when he increased funding for federal drug control agencies to curb drug use. Despite the fact that little was known about marijuana at that time, it was quickly labeled as a “gateway drug” which provided a justification of their corporal punishment policy for the American people - communicating that it was for their own good. Between the years 1980 to 1997, individuals incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses grew from 50,000 to 400,000. In the past two decades, an average of 600,000 people are incarcerated for marijuana usage annually. These harsh drug policies were not equally enforced along racial lines, however. Despite white and black people using marijuana at similar rates, black people were nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana use. And while the War on Drugs may have increased policing of the drug, criminalization resulted in no significant reduction of marijuana use.

In the past decade, many states have decriminalized and even legalized the use of marijuana. Decriminalization means that it is now considered a civil infraction to be found with marijuana rather than a misdemeanor, and while an individual may have to pay a fine they will not acquire a criminal record. Governments have been applauded for this huge step largely to combat the inequity in marijuana charges. As marijuana has been decriminalized in some states for years now, however, disproportionate enforcement has still remained present. Two years after decriminalization in Washington DC, black residents were still 11x more likely to be arrested for marijuana use than whites. As the ACLU explains, “legalization has not eradicated the indefensible rate at which Black and Latinx people are arrested for marijuana offenses in these states.” While decriminalization is a large step in the right direction to combat the lasting impacts of the War on Drugs, it is nowhere near enough. The Center for American Progress suggests that automatic expungement of all past marijuana convictions and reinvestment of marijuana revenue is essential to repairing the harm that was caused by the War on Drugs in black and brown communities.

As more states legalized marijuana, corporations jumped on the financial opportunity. The marijuana industry has grown at an incredibly fast rate and is projected to be worth $70.6 billion by 2028. The war on drugs has also had a huge impact on inequalities of the burgeoning legal retail cannabis industry due to the amount of capital and resources needed to break through all of the barriers to entry. This has created a situation where only 19% of marijuana business owners in 2017 were people of color. Instead of the legalization of marijuana being used as a method for helping end mass incarceration and create opportunities to add wealth in impacted communities, wealthy, largely white-run corporations have maximized profit on the usage of lower-income people.


“Criminalization and Decriminalization of Marijuana Possession in Non-Legalization States.” Stanford Network on Addiction Policy, 28 May 2020, https://addictionpolicy.stanford.edu/criminalization-and-decriminalization-marijuana-possession-non-legalization-states.


“Marijuana Timeline | Busted - America's War on Marijuana | Frontline.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/dope/etc/cron.html#:~:text=After%20a%20lurid%20national%20propaganda,authorized%20medical%20and%20industrial%20uses.


Resing, Charlotte. “Marijuana Legalization Is a Racial Justice Issue.” American Civil Liberties Union, American Civil Liberties Union, 22 Apr. 2019, https://www.aclu.org/blog/criminal-law-reform/drug-law-reform/marijuana-legalization-racial-justice-issue.



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