The toll taken by the War on Drugs is enormous and incalculable. People had their lives destroyed for minor infractions, and that damage can never be undone. Still, there must be a way for the government to make up for the harm it has caused, and the lives it has destroyed, in the pursuit of the impossible goal of a “Drug-Free America” that resulted in overly harsh law enforcement targeting urban communities of color.
One way to begin to repair this damage is through policy designed to improve the lives of victims of overly punitive marijuana policies in states that have since legalized recreational use. Knowing that marijuana is now legal will be cold comfort to those who spent years in prison for being caught holding a joint, who cannot get public housing or federal student loans because of a criminal record, who have found themselves unemployable because of a box on a job application that they have to check.
Countless policies at the state and federal levels seem designed to destroy the lives of convicted felons, to make their path to rehabilitation more challenging, to hinder their ability to build a stable life and to increase the likelihood of recidivism. Not only should these punishments no longer be inflicted on those who have unnecessarily suffered for infractions since made legal, but steps can and should be taken to ensure that victims of the drug war receive restitution for the suffering they endured. Unfortunately, policy regarding legalization does not always take this approach.
Among the many policies related to marijuana legalization that seem to favor the white and rich are the various employment and licensing restrictions placed on those with previous criminal convictions. Essentially, this means that anybody arrested for selling marijuana when it was illegal is barred from reaping the rewards of its legalization. Accounting for the fact that the strict regulations on marijuana sales makes the price of opening a dispensary extremely high, the effect of this legislation is that those who suffered under overly aggressive laws for decades (typically minorities living in poverty-dense neighborhoods) cannot benefit from marijuana legalization. Instead, all of the money will go to people who are already wealthy and were never caught smoking marijuana.
If state and local governments do not account for the damage they have done and take steps to atone for it, the history of racial injustice in drug policy enforcement will leave a long and painful legacy. In 2016, three states voted to legalize recreational marijuana: Massachusetts, Nevada, and California. While dispensaries in Nevada have already been up and running for months, the process of regulating the sale of marijuana in California, which has largely been left up to local jurisdictions, has been slow and complicated. Yet one recent development from the Los Angeles City Council shows that they are taking seriously their responsibility to lift up communities that have been harshly punished by the drug wars.
Herb Wesson, the LA City Council President, has proposed a program that would support people convicted of marijuana offenses by expunging their records and helping them set up legal dispensaries. In an idea inspired by one proposed by the Oakland city government, the city would provide assistance with licensing, and even offer reduced rent on vacant city properties. In addition, new dispensaries would be required to hire a certain number of low-income workers in order to maintain their license. California law prohibits local governments from giving preferential treatment based on race or ethnicity, but since the war on drugs has so disproportionately punished people of color, this form of reparation is almost certain to have the intended effect.
One of the main arguments in favor of marijuana has long been the revenue that will be raised to fill the coffers of states and cities, and undoubtedly the taxes raised from marijuana sales, coupled with the money saved by not having to enforce drug laws, will be enormously beneficial. But cities need to do more than legalizing marijuana and wait for the money to roll in if they want to heal the wounds inflicted by decades of discriminatory policies. By erasing the drug convictions of low-level offenders and helping them enter the rapidly expanding legal marijuana market, California has created a model for how to repair the harm it has caused. Hopefully, other cities will follow suit.