Is It Time for Marijuana-Related Reparations? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Is It Time for Marijuana-Related Reparations?

Is It Time for Marijuana-Related Reparations?

By Tiffany Onyejiaka

A botanical extraction specialist strips marijuana buds off their stalks.
SourceRyan David Brown


Because communities of color are largely shut out of a major industry.

By Tiffany Onyejiaka

“Cannabis weddings: The perfect way to elevate your big day.” “California ‘nuns’ are selling pot products online.” “‘Marijuana moms’ claim pot makes them better parents.” These headlines are popping up across America, depicting cannabis usage as modern, mainstream, “progressive.” Each story stirs up hope that America will shift further from its puritanical past to embrace a substance that was only outlawed in part to demonize Mexican immigrants in the early 20th century.

But headlines attached to photos of happy-go-lucky white millennials are only half the story. “Over 60 partygoers arrested for less than an ounce of marijuana.” “Georgia linebacker arrested on marijuana charges.” These are the headlines attached to Black and brown faces, mirroring the decades-old tradition of punishing people of color for activities that white Americans can enjoy and profit from.

We should hold cannabis industries accountable to their progressive ethos and encourage them to make this right.

Marijuana companies, which are overwhelmingly white-owned, profit from inequities fostered by war-on-drug policies. Anyone praising the state of drug use in America is conveniently ignoring the thousands of marginalized people still being heavily penalized for marijuana use. The war on drugs hasn’t stopped destroying innocent lives just because a few white entrepreneurs have made millions selling it and white liberals can freely use it.

It is innately hypocritical to profit off a practice that gets entire demographics of Americans locked up without using your resources to level the playing field. While modern marijuana entrepreneurs capitalized on an emerging industry, marijuana dealers from disadvantaged backgrounds sold weed to find income in a racially stratified economy — and now sit behind bars. By failing to proactively reform drug policies, marijuana companies are stealthily ensuring high profit margins and low competition because Black individuals with their same skill sets and knowledge are currently serving time or barred from the industry due to previous felonies.

As a young Black individual, I find these headlines infuriating. They display a cognitive dissonance about what qualifies as progress in America, a blatant reminder that Black people are disenfranchised from the legal drug economy — like so many aspects of American culture. But there are ways to level the cannabis playing field and rectify America’s racist past with the drug, and the marijuana industry can become a real bastion of progress. 

“It’s absurd that you have these disparities in places like Colorado versus places like Georgia, which have dramatically different approaches to the problem of regulating drugs,” says Nathan Connolly, a history professor at Johns Hopkins University and an expert on race and the American economy. “Progressive forces need to basically find a way from the local level up to the national level to take over the political process … on the issue of marijuana. … There comes a point where you have to really ask questions about which political coalitions are possible in which states and wage a state-by-state strategy.”

But marijuana legalization at the federal level is the most important way to eliminate these disparities, as to jail a person in one state for an activity that can legally earn millions of dollars in another state stands in direct conflict with America’s “justice for all” ethos.

The cannabis industry also needs strong affirmative-action policies. “It’s all at the level of soft, racial representation,” Connolly says. “Affirmative action by way of diversity and inclusion, but nothing that has concrete and quantitative benchmarks. No industry across the country has those, and until those become permissible again, you won’t see the needle move in the marijuana sector either.”

Some states are looking at expunging marijuana-related offenses from criminal records. America still largely demonizes individuals with criminal records, which can hamper one’s educational opportunities, job prospects and voting rights — with disproportionate impact on people of color. Eliminating these records would allow thousands of people with nonviolent marijuana offenses to achieve further success.

We should hold cannabis industries accountable to their progressive ethos and encourage them to make this right. Individuals arrested during the war on drugs for marijuana use, trafficking and distribution have had their lives destroyed for partaking in what is now a billion-dollar industry. They deserve financial and scholastic reparations to help them reintegrate into society.

Disparities with marijuana regulation and entrepreneurship are a complex, multigenerational problem that will take years of dedicated activism and policy change to improve. We must fight for equality but also give reparations to those harmed by previous and current laws targeting people for this offense. We must use every resource available to help these individuals reclaim their lost lives. It is our responsibility.

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