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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

Lessons From Legalization: The Problem Isn’t Cannabis, It’s Capitalism

There has been a sea change in attitudes and laws on marijuana, which ought to have helped ease racial inequities. But without concerted intervention, legalization won’t change much.

A variety of strains at a recreational marijuana dispensary in Denver, Colorado - My 420 Tours, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons


By Sonali Kolhatkar


The United States government is likely to end the designation of marijuana as a dangerous narcotic sometime this year, potentially marking one of the biggest federal decisions on the classification of the drug in decades. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration determined that marijuana is less harmful than, say, opioids and other substances, prompting the Biden administration to announce it would “reschedule” cannabis from a Schedule I—which is what the most dangerous drugs are classified as—to a Schedule III drug, commensurate with anabolic steroids and ketamine.


The move is long overdue, especially in light of the disproportionate criminalization of Black and Brown users and sellers of the drug. According to the ACLU, “Marijuana use is roughly equal among Blacks and whites, yet Blacks are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.” While there have been many benefits stemming from legalization, there has been one negative impact: the enrichment of those who were privileged to begin with, rather than those who were most impacted. This is less the result of legalization than of ongoing inaction on righting racial inequities in our justice, legal, and economic systems.


There are steps that the government could take to remedy such inequities—if it wanted to. The trouble is that those in power have instead sought to demonize marijuana, its users, and its impacts, resisting the dissemination of justice at every step.


When California voters approved the legalization of recreational marijuana in 2016, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency under then-President Barack Obama denied a petition to reschedule marijuana at the federal level, saying the drug “lacks an acceptable level of safety for use even under medical supervision.” Still, states were already responding to a sea change in public opinion and were slowly legalizing cannabis.


But naysayers, seeing the writing on the wall, made unfounded fear-based claims akin to a modern-day version of “reefer madness,” drawing deceptive parallels to already legal but harmful substances such as tobacco and alcohol. It isn’t surprising that such scare tactics can be traced back to racist beliefs.


With 40 states and the District of Columbia having legalized cannabis use, in a trend that seemed unthinkable a decade or so ago, the panic-driven predictions about the drug’s dire impacts on individual health and behavior have proven to be false. It wasn’t cannabis that ruined people’s lives. It was the criminalization of cannabis that did so.


Now, many of those who were arrested and convicted of marijuana-related state-level offenses are slowly seeing their records being expunged as states enact laws in line with legalization. The Last Prisoner Project reports that “24 states have enacted cannabis-specific record clearance laws, and 10 states have enacted cannabis-specific resentencing laws.” In California, a majority of those impacted have seen their records cleared.


Cannabis taxes are also boosting state revenues. But that hasn’t stopped the naysayers from casting a negative light on legalization. While California now rakes in about $1 billion per year from marijuana sales, headlines about falling revenues resulting from lower prices and reduced use are increasingly common. In other words, there were initially fears that too many people would start using marijuana if it were legalized. And now there are worries that too few are using it.


Colorado, the first state in the nation to have legalized marijuana for recreational use, is seeing a similar sort of disappointment such as this local CBS story headlined, “Shortfall in marijuana sales tax revenue in Colorado will impact Aurora homeless”—as if cannabis taxes were responsible for creating and sustaining a homelessness crisis rather than predatory capitalism. (According to the Common Sense Institute, there is increased homelessness in Aurora because “[h]ousing affordability in Colorado has plummeted, overall price levels are at record highs due to inflation, and the state’s housing inventory is dangerously low.”)


What is critical to examine in terms of a disappointing result of legalization is the disproportionate enrichment of the privileged few, instead of those who were historically harmed by prohibition. The vast majority of cannabis sellers are white—the same demographic that was spared the worst impacts of cannabis criminalization.


This is unsurprising given the persistence of a racist criminal justice system and racial wealth gap in the U.S. Without intentional intervention to ensure that those most harmed by prohibition would benefit the most from legalization, the chips fell where they always do when it comes to American capitalism—in the laps of the already privileged.


Even in states like Illinois, where legalization was enacted with an eye toward righting racial wrongs, cannabis sales have not substantially helped to erase the racial wealth gap. According to Jocelyn Martínez-Rosales writing in the South Side Weekly, “legalization… has not led to substantial gains for the Black and Brown communities most affected by its criminalization.”


Just as homelessness in Colorado is the result of predatory capitalism and an unwillingness by elected officials to financially intervene in order to house people, the financial benefits of cannabis legalization can, and will, remain inequitable without concerted intervention.


One model for effective intervention is the Illinois city of Evanston, famous for being the first in the nation to enact a program of reparations for its Black residents in the form of cash for homeownership, and eventually for the development of Black-led businesses.


Those reparations, introduced by then-Alderwoman Robin Rue Simmons in 2019, were specifically aimed at undoing historical harm. Rue Simmons said, “We all know that the road to repair and justice in the Black community is going to be a generation of work. It’s going to be many programs and initiatives, and more funding.” Evanston’s reparations are funded in large part by marijuana sales taxes, because, according to the city council, “[T]here is no more appropriate place to use the sales tax from that industry.”


When cannabis tax revenues weren’t enough to fully fund Evanston’s intended reparations, instead of throwing their hands up in the air and accepting this as inevitable, city officials simply added a second dispensary’s tax revenues to make up the shortfall.


Imagine if we applied such an approach to all social ills. For example, Aurora, Colorado could simply decide not to tolerate the fact that so many people remain unhoused and find other sources of revenue to make up for the shortfall in cannabis taxes.


Taking that approach to its logical conclusion, local, state, and federal officials could intervene wherever predatory capitalism and racist criminal justice systems devastate communities of color and others.


There are many lessons to be learned from our collective evolution on the issue of marijuana, the most important being that social and economic inequities are not hard to tackle if there is political will. The problem is not (and never was) marijuana. It is (and always was) racial capitalism. That’s something the Biden administration would do well to keep in mind as it takes the next step toward easing federal restrictions on marijuana.


Sonali Kolhatkar is an award-winning multimedia journalist. She is the founder, host, and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a weekly television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. Her most recent book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights Books, 2023). She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute and the racial justice and civil liberties editor at Yes! Magazine. She serves as the co-director of the nonprofit solidarity organization the Afghan Women’s Mission and is a co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan. She also sits on the board of directors of Justice Action Center, an immigrant rights organization.


This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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