Spring 2021

From the Editor: The Legacy of the War on Drugs

It’s well known that the history of cannabis in America is shot through with prejudice, and while there have been significant efforts to chip away at the bitter legacy of the so-called War on Drugs, inequities remain in every aspect of the industry and related social and justice issues.

Criminalization of cannabis was fueled by racism and enforced by discriminatory legal practices. Although cannabis is consumed in similar amounts by white, Black, and Hispanic populations, white individuals have accounted for far fewer arrests for cannabis possession. Not only are minorities more likely to be arrested on cannabis-related charges, but they’re also less likely to be released on bail and are more likely to serve more time. Furthermore, noncitizens may face grievous consequences for possession of cannabis, even where there’s been decriminalization.

In its 2020 report, “A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform,” the American Civil Liberties Union analyzed the racially aggressive enforcement of cannabis possession law and its repercussions. “When people are arrested for possessing even tiny amounts of marijuana, it can have dire collateral consequences that affect their eligibility for public housing and student financial aid, employment opportunities, child custody determinations, and immigration status.” And the effects can linger for decades, preventing individuals with possession records from getting a toehold in the business of legal cannabis, including medical cannabis. So while minorities are disproportionately penalized, it tends to be white individuals who prosper from cannabis enterprises.

For 50 years, the War on Drugs has contributed to mass incarceration. One of a number of organizations working to mitigate these devastating consequences and ensure equity in drug policy and criminal justice is the Last Prisoner Project. As its website explains, the project “works to redress these disparities through policy reform, legislative advocacy, and impactful direct service programs that work to both release nonviolent cannabis offenders from incarceration and to assist those coming out of incarceration in rebuilding their lives through reentry programs and antirecidivism efforts.” Its ongoing efforts to aid those imprisoned on cannabis-related charges include improving living conditions for prisoners and, now, to secure release of prisoners to prevent infection with COVID-19 and get protective personal equipment and other safety measures to those who remain incarcerated.

Look in this issue’s Advocacy department for contributor Marilyn Fenichel’s reporting on the project’s three chief missions: prisoner release, record-clearing, and reentry. And look to future issues for more articles on advocacy organizations working to make a change.

— Kate Jackson


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