Today is the day that dedicated weed enthusiasts around the world will celebrate by blazing up in unison. You’ll read stories that make it sound cute, fun, even hip to take a puff, puff, pass in honor of the day, but there’s a bigger issue at hand that very few want to admit. The truth is that according to the FBI, someone is arrested for marijuana possession every 51 seconds in the United States and that someone is nearly four times more likely to be African American.
Even though both Blacks and Whites use marijuana at similar rates, weed arrests (on average 750,000 per annum) accounted for nearly half of all drug arrests each year. Not only that but African Americans are much more likely than Whites to be stopped and frisked, arrested, prosecuted and incarcerated based on drug law violations. These higher rates have nothing to do with increased use or sales of drugs in our communities, but are attributable rather to law enforcement honing specifically in on communities of color in urban areas.
The effects of these arrests are far-reaching— criminal convictions severely restrict African-Americans’ ability to vote, receive college loans or secure full-time employment. Additionally, these arrests drain much needed law enforcement, treatment and justice system dollars at an enormous price to the American taxpayer. With so much at stake for our communities, we must ask ourselves what a more just approach to marijuana drug policy would look like and what we can do to make these reforms a reality.
While decriminalizing marijuana is a step in the right direction, it falls very short of ensuring justice for communities of color. Reforming these laws will only improve the lives of Black communities if it’s done in conjunction with substantial police restructuring that stops them from unfairly targeting people of color. For example, in 1977, New York State decriminalized marijuana possession for small amounts kept out of public view, making it subject to a fine for those accused for the first time. But because of racially biased policing practices and loopholes in the decriminalization law, there have been more than 700,000 marijuana arrests over the last 20 years in New York City alone. Despite policy promises from the current administration, the NYPD arrested more than 16,500 people for marijuana possession in 2015 and nearly 90 percent were Black or Latino.
Even in Colorado, where marijuana is legal with restrictions on quantities, a recent study showed that in 2014 the arrest rate for marijuana possession in the state was 2.4 times higher for Blacks than that for Whites. Even though African-Americans account for 3.9 percent of the state’s population, they comprise 9.2 percent of marijuana possession arrests.
The real answer is full legalization and substantive policy reform combined with concentrated efforts to funnel resources and support into communities devastated by the effects of prohibition. Current marijuana laws simply lack common sense. More than 117 million people in the U.S. (44 percent) admit to trying marijuana at least once in their lives and 22 million admit to having used it in the past two months. Considering there wasn’t a single reported death from a marijuana overdose last year, it seems strange that it has remained classified as a Schedule 1 drug, a category which the DEA defines as, “the most dangerous drug of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence.” To put this in perspective, cocaine and crystal methamphetamine are classified as Schedule 2 drugs. Meanwhile, according to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 90,000 people die each year from alcohol related deaths, and yet, alcohol remains completely uncategorized.
Schedule 1 drugs are also defined in part as having no medical value, but for many suffering from a number of incapacitating, chronic diseases, medical marijuana is the only treatment capable of relieving pain and remedying symptoms without debilitating side effects. In fact, its medicinal benefits have been proven by decades of peer-reviewed studies.
When we take a step back and have an unadulterated look at the ways marijuana exacts damage on communities, its most dangerous traits lie not in its chemical properties but in the disproportionate enforcement of laws in communities of color. After you’ve read those stories about the frivolity of 4/20, focus on the fact that these arrests continue to tear at the fabric of our people. Since the attention is being put on marijuana use today, it is the perfect opportunity to consider the short and long term paths to substantial change; first by finding ways to stop law enforcement from removing our Black brothers and sisters from society for actions that pose no threat to public safety or to their own lives and then to agree upon drug policy reform that will finally level the playing field of justice.
Kassandra Frederique is State Director, New York at the Drug Policy Alliance.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that New York City decriminalized marijuana possession in 2014. It has been corrected to reflect that New York State decriminalized the substance in 1977 for possession of small amounts kept out of public view.