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President Joe Biden’s decision to pardon thousands convicted of marijuana possession represents a step toward securing racial equality, advocates and lawmakers said Thursday.
“It’s a really long time coming,” said Toi Hutchinson, CEO for the Marijuana Policy Project, a leading cannabis policy reform organization.
“It’s bittersweet when you know how long disproportionate criminalization of both consumption and possession has been for Black and Brown communities. This is a long hoped-for, reached-for, fought-for action by the President and we’re very thrilled that he’s keeping his campaign promise,” she added.
The U.S. has a long history of racializing marijuana use. Mexican immigrants first introduced recreational marijuana to American culture in the 1910s, according to PBS. The drug became associated with the immigrants, and anti-drug campaigns linked marijuana with violence and crime committed by “racially inferior” communities.
These prejudices would continue for decades . By the 1980s, President Ronald Regan’s War on Drugs introduced mandatory minimum sentences, including life sentences for repeat drug offenders. The War on Drugs continued under then-President George Bush and intensified with the 1994 crime bill passed under then-President Bill Clinton.
The effects of the policies have continued to be felt in the years since. The ACLU reported in 2020 that more than 6 million arrests occurred between 2010 and 2018 for marijuana — and Black people are more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people in all 50 states, including those that have legalized marijuana.
Despite African Americans and Caucasians using marijuana at similar rates, the arrest rate of African Americans for marijuana charges is almost four times that of whites, according to the NAACP.
Advocates have pushed for Biden to legalize weed since his election, and many cheered the president’s decision Thursday.
The Congressional Black Caucus said the president’s “transformative” actions are righting “the historic injustices from the failed War on Drugs.”
“Possession of marijuana has upended far too many lives and incarcerated Black people at an alarmingly disproportionate rate for activities that many states no longer prohibit,” said Chairwoman Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio). “Criminal records for marijuana possession have also imposed insurmountable barriers to employment, housing, and educational opportunities for countless Black and brown Americans.”
The NAACP also reports that Black and Latinx people make up nearly 80 percent of those incarcerated in federal prison and 60 percent of those in state prison for drug crimes.
“We applaud President Biden for pardoning those who have been convicted for the simple possession of marijuana,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson said in a statement.
“Drug arrests and enforcement have caused racial disparities throughout the criminal justice system, and many drug laws were first created to target racial and ethnic minorities,” Johnson said. “Today marks another significant step in addressing the systemic racism within the criminal justice system.”
The organization has long stressed the inherent unfairness in the incarceration of Americans for use or possession of the substance when the industry itself makes billions each year.
In 2020 alone, legal sales for cannabis hit a record of $17.5 billion — a 46 percent increase from 2019, according to Forbes.
While Biden’s actions Thursday pardon those convicted of a federal offense, he is also calling on governors to pardon state offenses.
“Just as no one should be in a Federal prison solely due to the possession of marijuana, no one should be in a local jail or state prison for that reason, either,” Biden said in a statement.
Currently, medical marijuana is legal in 29 states and recreational marijuana is legal in 19 states and Washington, D.C. Five states have cannabis laws on the ballots this year.
However, the substance remains illegal at the federal level.
Rev. Al Sharpton, founder and president of the National Action Network, said the nation must confront the racism that allowed the disproportionate incarceration of Black men before legalization can fully take place.
“The United States will never justly legalize marijuana until it reckons with the outdated policies that equated thousands of young Black men with hardened drug pushers,” said Sharpton. “President Biden’s righteous action today will give countless Americans their lives back. They were thrown behind bars for years on end for simple possession, a non-violent offense, for a substance that red states and blue states are now legalizing at a furious clip.”
“This held them back from jobs, homes, and the general dignity they now get back with this full pardon,” he continued. “We will continue to monitor the legalization and hold the federal government to its word.”
Hutchinson, of the Marijuana Policy Project, said true justice will require economic equality in the industry as well.
“That same multibillion dollar industry that’s operating should have space and room for the people who were penalized by the exact same activity,” said Hutchinson. “Real justice and real cannabis equity comes when the industry also opens up and more people are empowered.”
“Black and brown people need to be a part of this newly expanding industry that has all kinds of potential for generational wealth,” she continued.
“It cannot be that when you talk about Black and brown people that you only talk about prison and that you only talk about criminality and sentences and stereotypes. There should be business operators and owners and investors and people who work in the facility and in an industry that is open and warm and welcoming to all people, especially the ones who are harmed the most by the prohibition of the exact same thing.”
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