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  • Jade Tran

Marijuana News: As the Nation Goes Green, Prisons Continue to Go Black

Good ole “Mary-Jane,” also scientifically classified as Cannabis, is well known as the relaxing “hippie” drug. All types of people are users: businessmen, teachers, and even students. However, weed consumption is only acceptable if you fit into these categories. And if you don’t, you’re often labeled a criminal, an addict, or a kingpin. Suddenly, your hands are behind your back, and you are getting cuffed by a police officer who caught you with a gram or less of weed in your pocket. Meanwhile, in a more affluent area, a blind eye is turned to your white counterpart who is illegally smoking a blunt on their way to class.

Marijuana was introduced to the nation with a negative stigma when it first arrived from Mexico in 1910. It was viewed as an “urban” drug that polluted big cities and was reported as majorly used by Blacks and Latinos. It was one of the drugs, along with crack cocaine, intentionally associated with Blacks during the early 70s. This false narrative introduced by President Nixon contaminated the U.S. and tainted the minds of citizens around the nation. Soon after, the War on Drugs revived by President Reagan changed public opinion regarding drugs which were initially not perceived as problematic by most of the American public. This campaign drove a wedge through the marijuana-using community, dividing bohemian-spirited white hippies and urban Blacks. The crippling contrast between the color of their skin and their media-influenced reputations is what placed them on opposite sides of the legal spectrum.

The cruel concept of intentionally criminalizing Blacks was admitted by President Nixon’s advisor, who said blatantly in an interview, “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Blacks, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.” When President Nixon was cracking down on crack cocaine in Black communities, after strategically feeding it to them, he developed a tactic that is currently practiced with weed prosecutions. To his benefit, Nixon was able to place Blacks in a position of harm, while he reaped the political rewards of targetting them.

This did not end with Nixon’s presidency. The legacy of this portrayal of weed users lives on today. Justin Bieber, a teeny bopper that stole the hearts of thousands of teens, dropped a hit song in 2021, titled “Peaches,” which included a chorus that glorified weed and even displayed where he purchased it. In this repetitive chorus, he chants seven times, “I get my weed from California.” An adored pop-singer, with a fanbase of young people, confidently stated his stance on marijuana with no repercussions or outcry against him. This song was a hit indeed, as it was nominated for sixteen different awards and was played on every major radio station across the nation. His reputation was not tainted after this song debuted, as it might have even been boosted. For a privileged celebrity like him, weed is an accessory that can be overlooked. He is protected by the color of his skin as if it is a suit of armor. However, when African Americans with similar platforms rap even a single verse about weed, they are criticized, criminalized, and stereotyped.

African-Americans are 4.2 times more likely to get arrested for marijuana charges than white people regardless of their proven similar usage and possession rates. While marijuana legalization is categorized as a positive step forward into the future of modern legislation and a free society, it should also be recognized as a racial justice issue.

Blacks became the antagonist of the “War on Drugs” campaign, and are still labeled as the culprit behind negative weed stigmas. Whites and Blacks are smoking the same drug at the same dosages; however, they are the ones thrown into the perpetual cycle of the prison industrial complex system. Many people in prison on weed-related charges are pawns in exploitative prison labor practices to create furniture for public universities, including the University of Maryland. This forced labor–a modern form of slavery–, have workers making pennies on the dollar. Further, once released, these people are marked down as second-class citizens simply because of their existence in a systemically racist society. They experience the consequences of felony disenfranchisement where they cannot vote or receive federally funded programs including public housing and food stamps.

Earlier this month, President Biden pardoned everyone convicted of simple marijuana possession under federal law. This was a progressive step for the United States, but we must remember the original issue that incited this type of dismissal. Racial disparities among marijuana convictions are the backbone of what created a need for a reset. Pardons are not a long-term fix as they only apply on a federal level and the offense remains on a person’s record. Unfortunately, a pardon does not imply innocence. Likewise, there is nothing stopping the legal justice system from carrying out this cycle again. While it is important to acknowledge Biden’s efforts, those 6,500 people pardoned were not incarcerated during the time of the pardon’s release. On the state level, millions of lives are still left unchanged.

On November 8th, 2022, the Gubernatorial General Election Day will be held in Maryland. Marylanders will be faced with a referendum encoding marijuana’s legalization in the state. If you are a Maryland resident and care about the impact of weed on Black communities, be sure to visit your polling locations and vote to play your part in minimizing the imbalance of marijuana convictions. Even if marijuana does not appeal to you personally, voting for its approval can work to eliminate the number of wrongly imprisoned Blacks. I challenge you to open yourself up to be the change for others, regardless of how it directly benefits you.


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