Legalizing cannabis in America would create a multi-billion dollar industry. But it's also an opportunity to make amends for the racial injustices behind pot prohibition. Although the difference between the number of blacks and whites using cannabis is negligible, blacks are three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana offences.
Now that legalization is gaining momentum in America, politicians, individuals and activist groups are making sure social justice issues like racial equality stay at the forefront of the discussion. Here's what they're saying:
1. Legalization is a civil rights issue
Alice Huffman, president of the California State NAACP, says "creating a legal, responsible and regulated framework for marijuana is a predominant civil rights issue and it's long overdue."
That's why her group is supporting the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (a.k.a. the "Sean Parker legalization initiative"), which she argues will overturn racially biased laws and protect children in California:
"The current system is counterproductive, financially wasteful and racially biased, and the people of California have repeatedly called for it to be fixed. This measure will ensure that California is not unjustly criminalizing responsible adults while also ensuring that our children are protected while the State receives hundreds of millions of new dollars for vital government and community-based programs."
2. Cannabis offenders deserve a clean slate
Right now, only one legal state (Oregon) has taken a statewide approach to vacating cannabis offences. Meanwhile, criminal records for things that are no longer criminal offences in Colorado, Washington and Alaska are preventing people from getting jobs, housing, loans and other social benefits.
Yancey is critical of cannabis activists who put the business of legalization first, and leave social justice concerns like this to be sorted out later:
"That's exactly how everything happens," she told BuzzFeed News. "They'll say, 'Oh, we just need to get what we want and then we'll put you in it.' But we know that if we're not in it from the jump, we're not going to be included. And at the end of the day, they don't owe anything to anyone."
3. Give dealers a crack at legal market
Many advocates see legalization as a way to combat crime. But that means many small-scale dealers will find themselves out of work. Samuel Sinyangwe, a policy analyst for Black Lives Matter, thinks activists should ensure that dealers have a chance to make their businesses legitimate:
"We really have to be thinking about who has access to the economy and asking ourselves if the same people who had been criminalized for participating in the informal marijuana economy are going to have access to the formal marijuana economy?"
4. Repairing broken communities
Poor, black communities have arguably been impacted the most by the War on Drugs. Yet they'll likely have the least presence in the legal market since they can't afford to buy retail licenses and open stores. That's unjust, says Deborah Peterson Small, the executive director of Break the Chains.
She offered a solution during a panel at the Drug Policy Alliance's 2015 international conference. By setting aside two percent of cannabis profits, states could create a fund to help people of color enter the industry.
5. Rescheduling cannabis
Michael Render (a.k.a. Killer Mike) is best known for releasing hip-hop tracks. But he's also lectured on race relations at New York University and MIT, and he's a vocal supporter of Bernie Sanders. During a sit down with Bernie, Killer Mike offered a short but sweet critique of the absurdity of American drug laws:
Sanders: "The Controlled Substance Act...says that a Schedule I drug, marijuana, is the same as heroin. What do you think about that?"
Killer Mike: "I'm a marijuana smoker, and that is absolute bullshit."