As you almost certainly are aware, more states are further legalizing medical and recreational marijuana in recent years, with some cities even decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of weed, all of which means that the plant is starting to be treated with some respect — finally. More research is being done about topics like what marijuana does to kids’ development and whether or not breastfeeding moms should be able to vape — and one university in Michigan is offering a full-on, four-year bachelor’s degree in all things having to do with the farming, marketing, and sale of weed. So now that you can get a degree in marijuana, what do we do about the fact that, legally, weed is still seriously ruining a lot of people’s lives?
What do we do about everyone in jail for non-violent drug offenses involving weed?
Not a whole lot, unfortunately. It’s tricky, of course, because the federal government still has some reefer madness, while states have made up all sorts of laws to regulate weed. There are almost 40 states that have legalized medical marijuana for treating pain, anxiety, and a host of other health problems we normally medicate with pharmaceuticals. Some major cities have decriminalized weed, which is a way to still be in compliance with conservative state and federal law, but acknowledge that marijuana use is more the rule than the exception.
So, in a lot of places, you can have what amounts to a pretty decent personal stash on you as you move around, and no one will arrest you for it (although research shows that this might only be true if you’re white). There are seven states (with Nevada coming in July 2018 and proposed legislation in Maine) that have made recreational marijuana legal, which means that you don’t have to have a special card or specific medical condition to possess it, consume it, and in some cases, grow your own on your own property.
Given how weed is not only being recognized as a medical resource but also a potential source of state revenue, it’s likely that more and more states and municipalities will follow suit. Hence, Northern Michigan University’s degree in marijuana, or “Medicinal Plant Chemistry,” for which students will learn all about the plant so that they can eventually run their own farm or dispensary, or advocate for fair regulation — basically, learn everything there is to know about turning weed into a proper business. A school in Cleveland is doing the same.
So what about the people in jail who already knew how to do all that? It’s not really fair that some 18-year-old kid is walking around with a degree in weed when another guy has spent the last 18 years walking around the world with a prior felony conviction for knowing how to do the same things at a time before they were recognized as valid things to know.
If anything, it’s another glaring reminder of just how racist our drug laws are.
According to a study done by the American Civil Liberties Union, people of all races use weed at pretty much the same rate, yet black people are almost four times more likely to be arrested for it. In some states, such as Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, and D.C., black people were 7.5 to 8.5 time more likely to be arrested for weed. Nearly two thirds of people arrested are sitting in a local jail because they can’t afford to post bail, which further hurts them (missing time at work or even losing their job, for starters), and is just a waste of taxpayer’s money. In New York, Texas, and Florida, you can end up with a life sentence if you get caught with small amounts of weed over and over again, provided prosecutors use the “habitual user” laws to get you. These are all pretty low-level, non-violent drug possession arrests, which is totally insane, since so many states are on board with the substance being legal.
But it’s not just the criminality of weed that’s racist: The entire culture around weed is racist. And giving a bunch of college students degrees in weed while others fight to get jobs or are still in jail because of a weed conviction is just the beginning of larger problem.
In states where it’s legal to grow, sell, and smoke weed, it’s mostly white people who are benefiting from that economic boom and people of color who are still getting slapped with criminal charges for having and consuming weed. According to BuzzFeed, only about one percent of the dispensaries in the country are owned and operated by people of color. We obviously have a major problem here.
What’s worse is that while a bunch of white kids in Michigan sign up for a weed degree, it’s really hard to get a sentence commuted and get out of jail for your drug offense. It’s not like officers just buzz the prisoners out of the yard when the legislation comes down. In Colorado, for example, someone can petition to get their felony charges down to a lesser one, but it’s just as complicated as anything having to do with the legal system is. Just as tricky is getting rid of a criminal background once your state makes weed legal.
Again, there are proposed laws in states in which recreational weed is legal to seal all criminal convictions for marijuana from before the law was in place so that it doesn’t show up on a federal background check, which would be pretty great if it happened. But that doesn’t mean that some people’s lives weren’t ruined all the same over the past few decades just because they smoked a joint once upon a time. And it’s no coincidence which people and communities are disproportionately damaged by all of this.
According to a BuzzFeed report on racism in marijuana culture, one black twenty-something spent about $800 in classes to learn how to work at a dispensary, but then was was turned down for a job because of two prior weed convictions. What happens to people of color signing up for courses in weed chemistry and marijuana marketing if they’ve been stopped with a gram on them a few years ago?
If all of this is making it sound like we might need some wide-scale “weed reparations,” you’re not crazy. The problem really is that systemic and that bad. If we’re going to start opening classrooms to teach people how to identify strains and sell weed to grandma, it might be worth making sure that those programs involve a deep dive into weed legislation and advocating for common sense laws to get people’s sentences commuted and records sealed. Because plowing ahead into the great new frontier of marijuana legalization needs to account for all of its victims.