Marijuana's racist double standard

by Kevin Milton / Beacon Correspondent • January 18, 2017

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Race makes a difference when it comes to the perception and reality of selling drugs, even when it’s legal.
Race makes a difference when it comes to the perception and reality of selling drugs, even when it’s legal.

When recreational marijuana was legalized in Massachusetts, a lot of people celebrated. But my perspective made it a lot harder to enjoy. 

As the legal pot industry booms, it’s not only notable that black individuals are left outside of the success of the industry, but simultaneously are being imprisoned, along with Latino youth, at alarming rates when compared to their white counterparts. This is something that has troubled me for some time because, as a result of legalization, I speculated that fewer minorities would be arrested. 

I’ve had personal experiences that attest to the prejudice minorities face when compared to white individuals regarding police harassment. I have witnessed how police treat black and Latino suspected of possessing drugs differently than whites people in the same situation. I have seen with my own eyes the devastation of a mother when her son was handcuffed because the cops found a small bag of weed in his pockets. I have seen white privilege at work when my white friends, who get away with carrying, are confronted by the cops. These are the same law enforcers who seem to have a vicious tendency to single out anyone without light skin.

According to a recent Huffington Post article, legal cannabis is the fastest growing industry in the nation, but like many other industries in America, racial disparity plagues the occupation. The booming marijuana business is very white regarding ownership of dispensaries and overall success of legal pot sales. Marijuana legalization reveals entrenched ideas about race and how it factors into the public’s perception of users and sellers. I believe that these ideas reinforce the notion that law enforcement in the United States serves the white population. 

America’s war on drugs, declared by President Nixon in 1971, creates a direct school-to-prison pipeline for minorities, particularly black men, who are arrested and imprisoned at a much higher rate for possession of marijuana.

Michelle Alexander, an associate professor of law at the Ohio State University, states in her novel, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness that “White men get rich from legal pot, black men stay in prison.”  Alexander goes on to speak about marijuana’s racist double standard concerning arrest rates for white and black men. After reading this book, I thought about the way the justice system in our country works and why it seems to be a problem that plagues minority communities, preventing normalcy rather than offering protection.

When examining causes of class disparity, we as a society place blame on personal choices rather than the institutionalized and systemic racism that sits as this country’s foundation. Black and Latino men are imprisoned at young ages, giving them records and replacing their names with numbers, only making it hard for them to succeed thereafter. 

Meanwhile, this same justice system caters to its white citizens and fosters a path to success by way of prejudice with the introduction of legal drug use. If we study the comparison between street drug dealing and legal drug dealing through dispensaries, we can note the differences in how the buying and selling of weed is handled when concerning race.

Drug dealing usually has a negative connotation, especially when the dealer is imagined as black or Latino, and is done illegally. Meanwhile, its legal counterpart in dispensaries has become this trendy, hip, and, most importantly, socially acceptable way to sell weed. It is the latter form that is almost exclusive to white men. Last March, NPR found that only one percent of dispensary owners were black and that although black individuals use pot at the same rate as white people, and in some cases less, they are arrested much more frequently. 

Every day throughout many cities across the U.S., many black and Latino men are profiled by police who are enforcing the law that was created to work for the white men. Stop-and-Frisk, a policy that was implemented in cities like New York , was a way for police officers to legally stop anyone who looked “suspicious” and check them for drugs and other illegal contraband. This practice, said to improve safety in dangerous areas, served as a way for cops to racially profile minorities. 

The consequences of the war on drugs are complex. Society’s legal cannabis sellers, they are benefiting from the marijuana boom and taking advantage of their privilege in order to make a fortune. Over-policing in black and Latino communities remain as a way to tell the brown individuals that they cannot do, say, or act similar to their white counterparts, because as the figures prove, they will be reprimanded. 

We as a society cannot continue to uplift one group while we trample another. We cannot allow the unconstitutional imprisonment of men of color for using a drug that is making other men rich. When does it end? When do we receive fair treatment across the board? When do we discontinue the pipeline to prison created to funnel our black and brown brothers to jail cells? I think that legalization should solve problems, not create more.