In a sporting competition predicated on equality, you would expect the Olympics to uphold those same values regarding their non-white athletes. But in February 2022, the world was reminded of how cannabis is still being weaponized against racial minorities. Figure skater Kamila Valieva’s quick rise to fame began after she landed a historic quadruple axel at the 2022 Olympic Winter Games. However, Valieva’s triumph was short-lived, as she tested positive for using performance-enhancing drugs just a few days later. Rather than being disqualified, Valieva continued to represent the Russian Olympic Committee in the games and was still allowed to compete.
For sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson, the odds were stacked against her. After testing positive for legal cannabis use to cope with her mother’s unexpected death, Richardson received a month-long suspension from competitions, despite cannabis holding no performance-enhancing properties. As if her mother’s death was not burdening enough, Richardson experienced the added weight of being labeled as a “stoner.” She has struggled to attain competitive success since. The world was stunned when Richardson failed to qualify for the 100-meter final at the USA Track and Field Championships, a critical stepping stone to the world championships.
The story is obvious: same scenario, different races, different outcomes. Valieva’s white privilege granted her the opportunity of a second chance, whereas Richardson’s name has been slandered by the press and across social media. In every facet of American life, the stigmatization of cannabis use has fueled long-standing criminalization against Black and Brown minorities, and its roots date back to the early 20th century.
Following a series of armed conflicts in Mexico, many Mexicans immigrated to the U.S. and introduced the recreational use of cannabis into American society. Cannabis quickly became demonized and racially linked to Mexicans entering the country.
Marijuana was initially made illegal in 1937 by Harry Anslinger, the first FBI director.— AFRICAN & BLACK HISTORY (@AfricanArchives) November 28, 2021
He claimed that black people and Latinos were the primary users and it made them forget their place in society.
He also claimed that cannabis promoted interracial mixing. pic.twitter.com/zWxXo0vNaP
Harry J. Anslinger, the grand wizard of U.S. Narcs, dubbed the drug “marijuana” to underscore the notion that cannabis originated in Mexico. He pronounced that cannabis was the root cause behind such “societal ills” like jazz music and white women sleeping with men outside of their race. Even further, he blamed cannabis for breeding crime and mental illness. Despite his cabinet of doctors proving that cannabis posed no public harm, Anslinger continued to push propaganda that only incited hatred against Mexicans and Black entertainers. Before the 1900s, a majority of cannabis-related articles emphasized its role as an industrial textile or medicinal herb. But as societal terror heightened, more press references to “marijuana”, such as a 1905 story by the LA Times, citing it as a source of “violence and death”.
America’s anti-“marijuana” fervor influenced legislation as well. Congress began criminalizing cannabis use after the Marijuana Tax Act was passed in 1937. The act posed a harsh tax on all cannabis purchases, which was burdening on low-income communities who relied on a daily dose of cannabis for either medicinal or recreational purposes. A new wave of sentencing laws was passed between 1951 to 1956 and drug-related offenses now had mandatory minimums. A first offense for possession of cannabis resulted in up to 5 years in prison, along with a $2,000 fine.
Counter-movements bubbled beneath the surface in the face of strong legislative and political pushback against cannabis use. The next decade held a comparatively less antagonistic attitude toward cannabis, as movements such as the Beat Generation gained massive traction. The Beat Generation comprised largely of young people, artists, and beatniks who embraced pot and exposed middle-class white neighborhoods to the drug. White teenagers began to challenge dominant stigmas around cannabis, and remnants of the Beat movement largely influenced the free-spirited hippie movement and other subcultures of those decades.
Skyrocketing rates of drug use by privileged white Americans paved the way for the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, temporarily repealing harsh penalties toward drug users and regulating the distribution of narcotics. During this period, both Presidents Johnson and Kennedy pioneered studies that exposed cannabis’ innocuous effects which in turn helped reduce stigma.
While targeted efforts allowed cannabis laws to grow laxer, it would take much more than a few amendments to alter a culture that has long been terrified of a single plant. President Richard Nixon launched his infamous, billion-dollar war on drugs where minimum sentences for drug offenses were reinstated. Lobbying efforts backed by social conservatives effectively swayed legislative decisions on criminalization policies and placed power in the hands of right-leaning anti-drug politicians.
The century-long debate on weed has now extended into our present zeitgeist, where criminalization of the drug continues to disproportionately target Black people and their communities in the U.S. Although they use cannabis at similar rates as white people, Black men and women are arrested at a rate of 4:1 for pot possession. Black cannabis users face higher incarceration rates for drug use across the nation.
In states like Montana, Black individuals were 9.6 times more likely to be arrested. These numbers prove to be even more staggering on a large scale; the mass criminalization of cannabis use affects over 700,000 individuals each year, further disenfranchising minority communities. Nearly half of all drug-related arrests involve pot, causing America to have the highest incarceration rate in the world.
For a criminology graduate teaching assistant at UT Dallas, the pressing issue of racial disparities among cannabis users hits close to home. “I remember being in high school and driving around, smoking in a car with my friends, and we got pulled over and they knew full well that we had been smoking marijuana,” they revealed.
“The cops pulled us out. They searched the car, and they were just like ‘just go home.’ Whereas I’ve been in cars with other friends that are not the same color as me, and they get harassed without even having done anything.” The T.A. adds, “Marijuana seems to be used as a precursor for things that inherently lead to discriminatory enforcement. Elitist colleges that are predominantly white have fraternities that are allowed to do the same things that street gangs are punished for.”
Many pro-criminalization politicians justify their beliefs with buzzwords like “public safety”, similar to the language popularized back in the 1930s. These punitive restrictions on smoking weed beg our society to take a step back and consider whether it is even harmful at all.
In Hawaii, of 100 people who used cannabis for medicinal purposes, half of them reported anxiety reduction and 45% experienced insomnia relief. At the same time, no serious adverse effects were reported. Alcohol causes around 140,000 deaths a year, tobacco causes over yearly, and cannabis causes zero deaths yearly. It is nothing short of hypocrisy for the government to legalize alcohol and tobacco, both of which directly cause deaths, yet criminalize a far less harmful substance.
In addition, harsh criminalization of weed does not ban the drug altogether. Rather, it motivates people to seek alternative ways of acquiring the drug, such as the illegal market. The value of the underground cannabis market was reported to be over $46.4 billion in 2016, and its value has risen since then. When the drug is not legalized, the government cannot regulate it and basic precautionary measures such as safe injection sites and state-funded rehab centers are swept under the rug. Regardless of whether weed is legalized or not, cannabis users will get their hands on the drug; the least our government can do is make it as safe as possible.
If cannabis is as dangerous as lawmakers claim, mass incarceration does nothing except exacerbate existing disparities and overburden prison systems. Wilds agrees, “Criminalization is the exact opposite of what we should be doing.” She points out, “Policies like supervised injection sites have a lot of evidence backing their effectiveness. It has to come down to reconnecting these people back into society and accepting that people are going to use drugs whether we want them to or not.”
As America’s recent social awakening sparked more dialogue surrounding cannabis and racial discrimination, there have been increased efforts to legalize the drug. This past summer, senate democrats led by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer rolled out a long-anticipated cannabis legalization bill, displaying more national efforts toward federal legalization. Full federal legalization goes a step beyond decriminalization. Whereas decriminalization simply bans cannabis-related punishment by the legal system, legalization would remove all existing prohibitions, make it widely available, and possibly expunge cannabis priors.
Many individuals remain wary about legalization, claiming that pot’s widespread availability would spark a nationwide epidemic. Associate Professor of Behavioral and Brain Sciences at UT Austin Sven Kroener resonates with this perspective. “Once we legalize it, and everybody has access, everyone may smoke just as much as they drink alcohol.” Kroener questions the consequences of cannabis if fully legalized, “Will we have as many people who suffer side effects, long-term effects of marijuana as we now have alcoholics? Once we legalize it, the barrier to entry is just lowered. That’s probably my biggest concern.”
To add fuel to Kroener’s concerns, the Biden-Harris administration just passed its most extensive drug reform yet. On October 6th, President Joe Biden granted a full and unconditional pardon to every individual who has been convicted of simple cannabis possession, which would expunge the records of at least 6,500 Americans.
Given that cannabis charges have disproportionately affected Black and brown populations, President Biden’s pardon is revolutionary. Cannabis-related criminal records have upheaved the lives of far too many and created barriers to housing, high-paying jobs, and education. Although Biden stopped short of advocating for the wholesale decriminalization of cannabis, his pardon may be a critical step toward legalization.
Legalization, if properly implemented, can legitimize existing state laws, and mitigate racially charged incarcerations. In California, the legalization of cannabis expanded government oversight on its distribution, and any consumer must be at least 21 years old with all purchases coming from a licensed dispensary.
The fight for legalization is far from over. For pro-cannabis communities like the Ann Arbor Hash Bash, the last lap toward nationwide legalization remains conceivable. Hash Bash organizer Rich Birkett shares his views, “We’ve held the Ann Arbor Hash Bash for 50 years. The last two full years had 10,000 to 20,000 people and there was absolutely no police presence. Everybody’s happy and so I think the cannabis users have proven themselves to be worthy of legalization. The event is a focal point for activists to get together, and I believe that helped legalize cannabis in Michigan.”
Now that Americans are familiarizing themselves with the actual history and benefits behind cannabis, it is important to reflect on why legalization efforts are met with harsh pushback. President Biden walked a fine line between being “moderate” with his recent pardons, which largely appealed to staunch Democrats and young progressives, but this is still only the baseline. Why did it take millions of Black and Latino Americans being racially profiled and locked behind bars for our country to realize there was even a problem?
If cannabis truly puts our communities at risk, how does mass criminalization address structural problems of addiction and violence? Whether it be helping a veteran cope with the long-lasting effects of PTSD from service or allowing someone struggling with anxiety to find an outlet, full federal legalization of cannabis would provide a whole host of benefits. As a nation, our true concern should not be weed itself, but the strains of its discriminatory history we have yet to address.