Marijuana Prohibition Racism and Real “Social Justice” From Los Angeles to New York

May 11, 2020 at 6:00 am

The racist origins of marijuana prohibition were never hidden, and the racial disparity in the enforcement of the laws was generally seen as a ¨feature, not a bug¨, because law enforcement generally was, and too often still is, racist in its operation.

It is also important to note that this is not just a relic of the past in the ¨Old South¨. The fact that cannabis-hemp is known by the Mexican slang term “marijuana” is further evidence of the racist origins.

And then Nixon blamed ¨Jewish Psychiatrists¨ for wanting to legalize marijuana. (Full disclosure: Some of my best friends are Jewish Psychiatrists.)

In Canada, which had almost no blacks or Mexicans in the 1920s, marijuana prohibition was based on anti-Chinese racism preached by the first female judge in the British Empire.

Now we just blame the Chinese for a virus. Progress?

Despite legalization in several states, as of 2018, ¨One commonality among all states— legalized, decriminalized, illegal — is that Black people are still significantly more likely to be arrested for marijuana than white people. And at the county level, there are places where Black people are more than 20, 30, 40, or even 50 times more likely to be arrested than white people.¨

Absurdly, outrageously, there are still over 600,000 marijuana arrests nationally and the racial disparities continue even in states with semi-legalized marijuana.

However, one should not think that all of the terrible damage to African Americans caused by marijuana prohibition was the result of white racism. After all, Obama did nothing to stop it.

Lock my people up?

It isn’t just white racists who supported, and continue to support, marijuana prohibition. When I was National Director of NORML (1992 to 1995) I joked that it was the whitest organization that I had ever belonged to that didn’t have a tennis court. We were attacked by African American leaders because we wanted to stop arresting African Americans??? Yep.

Much of the African American leadership opposed marijuana legalization and some still do now.

(And the Catholic Church, to which most Latinos belong, is strongly prohibitionist.)

"It will devastate the African-American community," Bishop Jethro James of Paradise Baptist Church in Newark told lawmakers at the first Legislative Black Caucus hearing on marijuana, held Wednesday, Feb. 21, in Jersey City. "It will devastate any chance of our children having a future." Yep.

Even today. African American leaders who say they oppose marijuana prohibition block legalization in several states, arguing that “social justice” requires that the marijuana businesses have to be given to people who have been victimized by prohibition.

(Note: Social Justice is a very broad subject, most of which is not relevant to marijuana legalization.)

In New York state, “Crystal Peoples-Stokes, the New York state assembly’s democratic majority leader, has pointed out that other states’ recreational cannabis laws have failed to ensure that communities historically targeted by discriminatory drug-use-enforcement practices benefit economically from legalization.”

In Los Angeles, Social Justice is called “Social Equity and the “Departament of Cannabis Regulation” is trying “to promote equitable ownership and employment opportunities in the cannabis industry in order to decrease disparities in life outcomes for marginalized communities, and to address the disproportionate impacts of the War on Drugs in those communities.”

Meanwhile, in the real world, the reason that there is an argument over who gets these licenses is based on the assumption that there will be a very limited number of them issued and they will be very valuable, so the African American leaders want to be sure that they go to their constituents. Fair enough, but…

First, how would making a few African American or Latino entrepreneurs rich help the overwhelming number of poor African Americans and Latinos, et al. who have been victimized by the Drug War?

A small number of white entrepreneurs have gotten rich in the cannabis boom, but that did nothing for most poor whites, who are either paying a premium to licensed retailers or still buying in the black market.

It is even more absurd when one realizes that the poor victims of prohibition, whatever their race, would be charged more and heavily taxed and given limited choices under an oligopolistic system in the name of “social justice.”

“Then I'll get on my knees and pray
We don't get fooled again
Don't get fooled again, no, no
Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss”
(Peter Townsend, the world’s greatest political philosopher)

But why place such low limits on the number of licenses? It certainly cannot be justified by any social order or public health concerns.

First, there are almost no social order problems associated with cannabis use, especially when compared with alcohol, which is sold almost everywhere.

Does marijuana lead to violence? Experts say there’s no clear link:

“Based on published studies, Roizen (3) summarized the percentages of violent offenders who were drinking at the time of the offense as follows: up to 86 percent of homicide offenders, 37 percent of assault offenders, 60 percent of sexual offenders, up to 57 percent of men and 27 percent of women involved in marital violence, and 13 percent of child abusers. These figures are the upper limits of a wide range of estimates. In a community-based study, Pernanen (4) found that 42 percent of violent crimes reported to the police involved alcohol, although 51 percent of the victims interviewed believed that their assailants had been drinking.”

And are there really public health concerns about contaminated marijuana?

While medical users might be concerned about mold and other possible contamination, the fact is that Americans, even people with AIDS and other medical conditions, have been using black market (often “Mexican Commercial”) for many decades and there were few, if any, reports of any resulting health problems.

In Dutch “coffeeshops” that have been selling cannabis (hashish and “wiet” weed) with no packaging. labels or testing for decades, there have been no reports of cannabis related health problems. And no violence or public order problems.

So, the way to get “social justice” for all the victims of prohibition is to get out of the way and fully legalize marijuana and let people in the poor neighborhoods open cannabis cafes with minimal restrictions so they can create jobs without having to spend thousands of dollars on lawyers and politicians.

And in neighborhoods where races mix, these venues can be places where everyone can meet. I have always understood the slogan “No Justice. No Peace.” But it might be better to say, “No Peace. No Justice.”

End the war on marijuana and let Peace begin with us!

End Marijuana Prohibition NOW!

          - Richard Cowan is a former NORML National Director
          and founder of