Saturday, March 8, 2014
The Drug Policy Alliance hosted a call with Michelle Alexander, author of the New Jim Crow earlier this week. With respect to marijuana enforcement and legalization, Alexander noted an interesting and unsettling dynamic: though the criminalization of marijuana has disproportionately impacted people of color, it seems the emerging marijuana industry is largely white.
“When I see images of people using marijuana and images of people who are now trying to run legitimate marijuana businesses, they’re almost all white," she said, noting she supports legalizing pot.
“After 40 years of impoverished black men getting prison time for selling weed, white men are planning to get rich doing the same things," she added. "So that’s why I think we have to start talking about reparations for the war on drugs. How do we repair the harms caused?"
You can listen to the call in its entirety here.
I'm not aware of any data on ethnicity and marijuana businesses. But I think this is an issue well worth tracking. I will be especially curious to see if data emerges on race and marijuana license applications and outcomes.
To the extent that marijuana legalization laws limit people with criminal records from obtaining a license, it may unintentionally cement racial disparity in the legal market. Though there are clear political and policy reasons for criminal history license exclusions, we know that people of color are far more likely to be arrested and prosecuted for drug crimes than whites. As a result, a white illegal marijuana grower or dealer may be less likely to have a record and more likely to be eligible to get a license (so he or she can move into the legitimate market) than a similarly situated person of color.
Of course, the impact depends on what sort of criminal history results in an exclusion. For example, Washington State's point system--which excludes anyone with a felony conviction within the past 10 years--seems likely apply to most drug sale convicts, since trafficking crimes like sale and possession for sale are usually classified as felonies. However, the regulation does state that if a person has a single prior conviction involving marijuana that may be considered "for mitigation on an individual basis" .
In any event, I think this dynamic is something drafters of reform laws and the regulators that implement them should be attuned to. If formerly illegal white dealers and growers are able to get licenses in legalization states (because they have avoided criminal convictions) while people of color are shut out, it is certainly a cause for concern.