By Jack Seigel
Any marijuana-related policy change that does not make reparations for the war on drugs is doing a disservice to the poor communities of color that were plagued by the unnecessary and racially motivated policies of the past. Let me start by saying that this is not my idea, not by a long shot. I first heard of it in this CityLab piece. The idea makes a lot of sense. Some people will make billions of dollars from the eventual legalization of marijuana, those profits should go to the people who bore the brunt of the costs for so long. Generations of economic opportunity were lost when policymakers decided to lock up nonviolent drug users. That charge follows them for life. Making it hard, and sometimes impossible, to find a job, find housing, and access government benefits. It also affects the development of children with incarcerated parents, especially in their educational development. This contributes to the school to prison pipeline. And of course, once we cranked up the mass incarceration machine, we were content to set it free in communities of color. Free to wreak havoc that spans generations. Free to continue a Jim Crow inspired enforcement of the hierarchical social order. Free to take freedom away from so many.
A second benefit is that legalization proves just how wrong it is to jail non-violent drug offenders. The story that the drug war affected certain populations more than others is backed by data and not hard to believe. The choice to legalize pot, even recreationally, is very popular. The combination makes it relatively easy to start talking about reparations. Over time those conversations could move beyond criminal justice and transition to housing, education, banking, health disparities, and other ways that structural racism is literally baked into our social institutions. Policies meant to combat racism need to make up for past injustices, and they will never move this way on their own. Instead, people need to demand reparations for communities wronged by the State. Until that logic is common sense for those in elected office, it makes sense to start with a story that is easy to tell, a harm that is easy to see and a fix that directly addresses the original problem.
Now I understand that the current ballot initiatives are all about medical marijuana, but that is just a first step. Ask any marijuana activist. And it is never too early to start talking about righting past wrongs. If one (or multiple) initiatives pass in November, people will be sitting in jail for smoking a plant that is now legally used as medicine in Missouri. What a travesty of justice.
There will be lots of ink spilled about the differences between the proposals. But we should stretch the conversation, with an eye towards future marijuana policy. What could result is a conversation that acknowledges and seeks to correct the mistakes of the past. And that would be a marijuana policy to get excited about.
Jack Seigel is a community organizer and political consultant. Born and raised in St Louis, he is currently a first year MSW student at Washington University. His interests are progressive public policy and criminal justice reform.