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Cannabis in the United States: Where We Are Now

In our last post, we discussed the states that have legalized cannabis and the list is long. Now, it’s time to focus on where we are today. While we’ve come a long way in terms of legalization at the state level, there’s a long way to go in terms of federal legalization, releasing prisoners for cannabis possession, and facing discrimination based on race.

Why hasn’t the War on Drugs worked and where are we heading in terms of cannabis reform?

The United States prison system is filled with people with minor offenses for drug possession and discriminatory practices that target people of color. Between 2001 and 2010, 8.2 million people were arrested for marijuana possession, on average 900,000 people per year. While there is equal usage between White people and Black people, Black people are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for possession. Nearly 80 percent of people serving time in federal prisons for drug-related offenses are Black or Latino and in state prisons, people of color make up 60 percent of the prison population.

While incarceration rates have risen, there has been no impact on the rates of misuse of substances, rather it is linked to higher mortality rates from overdoses. 

As the War on Drugs has continued over the past several decades, the United States government has spent over a trillion dollars to enforce its drug policy, but many conservatives and liberals have agreed that the War on Drugs has not paid off.

Since the War on Drugs encompasses more than just cannabis, conservatives have started to reevaluate their stance on it and started to fight for rehabilitation programs, rather than imprisoning people for drug use and possession. Former Governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie stated, “What we need to come to grips with is addiction is a disease and no life is disposable… It can happen to anyone and so we need to start treating people in this country, not jailing them.”

Across the political spectrum and among some law enforcement officials there has been agreement that the persistence of the War on Drugs is used to target marginalized groups of people. New York Attorney General Letitia James stated, “The ‘War on Drugs’ is really a war on people of color, poor Americans, and many other marginalized groups.

The F.B.I released estimated crime statistics in 2018 that showed there were over 1.6 million arrests for drugs, and that number has increased since 2015. While drug arrests rise, arrests for violent crime and property crime have continued to trend downward. 

While President Biden used to be strongly opposed to legalizing and decriminalizing cannabis, during his 2020 campaign he retracted his past statements on drug policy. During his campaign, he said that he believed no American should be imprisoned because of addiction and has endorsed decriminalization of cannabis.

We still have a long way to go before we can have a fair cannabis industry. Racism and classism are prevalent in our prison system and country so it is imperative that we push for change. Once misconceptions start to change and we address the root of the problems within our prison system, we should see the release and rehabilitation of people in prison for drug use. The negative stigma that is associated with cannabis is continually perpetuated as more people are imprisoned for cannabis use and possession. Let’s work together on educating our peers on what cannabis is and why it shouldn’t have the negative stigma that it does.

You made it through our series! You can read all of the parts of “Cannabis in the United States” from start to finish: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven.