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.
There are many reasons to legalize marijuana in all states, not just the eight that have already done so. No longer will we continue to ruin hundreds of thousands of lives through arrests for marijuana possession. Police, our courts, and prosecutors will be put to far better use. Marijuana will be safer through the regulation of how it is sold and who sells it. We will stop subsidizing the drug cartels that profit from control over the black market. But as important as all of those factors are in considering marijuana legalization, perhaps the most significant reason to move towards legalization is that it will make it possible for us finally to provide drug education, especially to our youth, in a way that works because it is open and honest. That is not possible now. Our national policy on marijuana is abstinence because it has to be. When a substance is illegal what else can we expect schools to tell children but to never use it? Unless we really expect that teenagers never will or should experiment with marijuana, where does that leave our programs of drug education? Short answer: they can’t, and, for the most part, do not work. In the current issue of the Journal of the American Health Association, Dr. David Nathan and his co-authors wrote that “Cannabis prohibition for adults does not prevent underage use… Unfortunately, prohibition sends the message that marijuana is dangerous for everyone, because it is illegal for everyone, and children know that is not true. If we want our children to believe us when we say that cannabis can be harmful to them, our laws should reflect the difference in health effects of underage and adult use.” This distinction between underage and adult use is lost, of course, on our Attorney General Jeff Sessions. For him, and much of the federal bureaucracy, all drug use is bad. That is why the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program (DARE) has been the most prominent federally-funded drug education since its founding in 1983. My colleague Tom Houseman has written that “DARE is famous for its distinctive slogan, its use of police officers as teachers, the pledge it has students sign to remain drug-free, and the countless studies that have proven it to be, at best, almost completely ineffective.” To the extent that DARE relies on police officers to stand in front of a classroom full of high school students and lecture them on the dangers of drug use, such programs are pedagogically unsound. Do we really believe that kids will respond to being told what to do, especially when what they are hearing does not jibe with their own experience, and what they know adults are doing? Faced with criticism over the years, DARE has made efforts to adjust. Jeff Sessions: The message has largely shifted away from “just say no” and introduced life skills training, and often drug use is not discussed at all. But without being able to teach harm reduction and safe use, the idea of “just say nothing” will barely be more effective than “just say no.” Harm reduction calls upon us to be present and offer resources for those struggling with addiction without insisting on abstinence. This should be the starting point for all that we do in relation to drug use, including the education of our youth. The concept of “abstinence only” is incompatible with “harm reduction.” This does not for a second mean that abstinence is wrong, or should be discouraged. It means only that harm reduction is both more realistic and more helpful to the majority of teenagers when it comes to drug education. Activist and educator Marsha Rosenbaum, captures the key point in the title of her booklet “Safety First: A Reality-Based Approach to Teens and Drugs.” This is what we need. This is what we should work toward as we stop living in the darkness of drug prohibition, and even the twilight zone of decriminalization. Drug legalization will make good education possible.
On Thursday, the Illinois Senate approved a bill to remove criminal penalties for simple marijuana possession, replacing the threat of jail time, a criminal record, and a lifetime of collateral consequences with a $125 fine, similar to a ticket for a traffic offense. The measure, which was approved by the House of Representatives in April, will now be sent to Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) for his signature.
Vox.com, the sixth brand of Vox Media, launched in 2014 as “a general interest news site for the 21st century.” With the goal of providing context for the news, Vox.com has created several “Card Stacks” on topics ranging from marijuana legalization to vaccines to the sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby. The swipeable Stacks consistent of around 20 cards, each which provide background information on the featured topic in an accessible and understandable way.