Marijuana leaf over yellow background
Credit: Victoria Bee Photography/Getty Images

I first started exploring my political identity during my senior year of high school. I’d been raised on conservative Catholic values, and I wanted to challenge them in an entirely new environment. So when I got to college, I joined my campus’s chapter of NORML (National Organization of Marijuana Laws). While joining an organization like NORML was a great way to expand my horizons, I’ll be honest that politics wasn’t the major reason I first sought it out. Mostly, I was looking for friends who smoked weed, and NORML focused on the legalization of marijuana.

The club embraced its reputation of being a NORML chapter that held meetings without passing a joint or ripping the bong. We were up to some serious business and didn’t fit the “lazy stoner” stereotype. We held annual Know Your Rights events geared towards first year students, hosted guest speakers who discussed medicinal benefits of cannabis, and held events about the War on Drugs to raise awareness about the criminalization and over-policing of Black and Latinx communities.

Like it does for many students, college exposed me to a more liberal environment, but getting involved with the legalization and decriminalization of marijuana took it a step farther for me. Our advocacy challenged everyday power structures like capitalism and police racism. And instead of being taught by professors, I was taught by activists, organizers, industry experts, and even classmates and peers.

This frame of thinking is what helped me understand the dire reality of United States imperialism. Imperialism, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is the practice of a country increasing their power “by gaining indirect control over the political or economic life of other areas.” In other words, the U.S. meddles in a lot of other countries’ politics, elections, and economic decisions (see: the Phillipines, Hawaii, Cuba, etc.) As I learned more and more about the U.S.’s role in drug trafficking abroad, I began to understand just how powerful—and disastrous—imperialism can be.

Latin America, for instance, is still hurting from the global War on Drugs, which claims to be a mission to prevent illegal drugs from entering the U.S. While you’re probably familiar with what the War on Drugs looks like here in America, globally, it looks like the U.S. sending its military abroad to break up cartels and organized crime groups controlling drug trades in the region. The Drug Policy Alliance explains that, across Latin America, “there has been an upsurge of violence, corruption…and human rights violations” because of those cartels. In Latin America, there are politicians and activists who want to decriminalize and legalize marijuana in order to lessen the power of cartels and combat their violence. But rather than supporting these efforts, the U.S. military continues to solely focus on the War on Drugs.

And it’s impossible to discuss the War on Drugs abroad or in the U.S. without discussing racism. Vice explains that “drug addiction had been framed as an infection and contamination of white America by foreign influences.” 100 years ago, anti-drug propaganda focused on demonizing people of color, and Mexican, Chinese, and Black people were especially considered a so-called threat to the white race; the government claimed that under the intoxication of drugs, including cannabis, they would rape white women. (This assumption is a racist and xenophobic myth because drugs don’t cause rape. Rapists cause rape. And a rapist can be of any race.)

Since the U.S. is a capitalist nation founded on the genocide of native peoples and African slavery, this history led to racist drug laws that still allow the U.S. to make money from mass incarceration. Most prisoners are behind bars for nonviolent drug offenses (many related to cannabis), and a vast majority of those serving time are Black and Latinx people. In 2010 alone, cops arrested someone for cannabis every 37 seconds, and the ACLU reports that Black people are four times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana.

Throughout college, even while I learned all of this, many of my peers dismissed our organization as the “pot club” and never took it seriously.

But today I am a journalist, and looking back now, I realize that a huge part of my job as a reporter is not only understanding the benefits of cannabis, but also the intricacies of white supremacy and U.S. imperialism. That education—unlearning myths about cannabis, other drugs, and the world around us—began with college campus marijuana advocacy. And that education is what I hope to relay in my writing.