Legalized Marijuana: Will White People Get  All the Good Weed?

In the rush to embrace the legalized-marijuana movement, African Americans are forgetting that it could bring a new form of segregation.

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Supporters of legalized marijuana light up at exactly 4:20 p.m. in Denver’s Civic Center Park, April 20, 2012.

Marc Piscotty/Getty Images

If the president of the United States says legalizing marijuana is all good, then it must be, right? If the first two states to fully legalize pot are sending their NFL teams to the Super Bowl, then the green stuff must not be all that bad, correct? And if 55 percent of Americans are fine with legalizing it, according to a recent CNN-ORC poll, then a debate on the merits of keeping it illegal must be moot, cool?

Maybe not. Many seem all too eager to legalize. But what happens to the pricing model? And will access—like all great American pastimes—end up segregated by race and income?

There’s an interesting sense of urgency to legalize as mass faux-libertarian movements of mostly white college-age kids want to reinvent Woodstock. The parents are worried about that. Teen marijuana usage is up, due largely to the plant drug’s branding success.

Hence, the rush to legalize comes at all too convenient a time for certain population groups who didn’t have to worry about the wrath of prohibition these past 75 years. 

Politicians see a political opening in this. Party strategists may have found their gateway talking point into the good graces of young voters jaded by politics as usual. Democrats need youth voters back and ready for 2016 before the hemorrhaging known as Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency gets any worse. Republicans are becoming convinced that crazy old Ron Paul was actually on to something with his army of fanatical young libertarians who road-tripped with him from primary to primary. 

In questioning our nearly century-long prohibition of marijuana, we should think hard about where legalizing it might end up. A recent YouGov poll (pdf) shows that 57 percent of African Americans—11 percent more than whites—believe that pot should be legalized, and no, that’s not casting any blanket stereotype, since usage rates among blacks and whites are about the same. Yet it sheds light on the amazingly fast evolution of this debate since the election of the first black president—and how that looks. 

Suspiciously, it seemed to take that event to push marijuana legalization forward, which strikes the naturally skeptic as strange, given the racial and political imagery. But for the most part, African Americans are all in. This is not so much because they want more weed but because they’ve been savagely victimized by marijuana-arrest rates and mandatory-minimum sentencing. Black conviction rates for possession are four times higher than white conviction rates, according to an ACLU study.

Although the statistics are alarming, basing our support for legalization on that alone potentially clouds our judgment. While weed liberalization and the elimination of racist sentencing laws (driven, in large part, by over-the-top policing) might seem like attractive get-out-of-jail-free cards, that's not the reason most Americans are embracing them. Think about it: Since when did whites grow so concerned about the mass incarceration of blacks in the United States?

Whites, according to recent polling, want stricter regulation if legalization happens, compared with blacks and Latinos—perhaps stemming from multiple fears of everything from increased weed usage to the high rates of black and Latino teens dabbling in it. In that same YouGov poll (pdf), only 46 percent of whites support legalization, compared with 57 percent of blacks. And whites are more likely, by 5 percentage points, to believe that pot usage leads to hard-drug use. 

Thus, racial clues into future marijuana laws are found in the history of its prohibition. As fears of pot-smoking men of color sexually corrupting young white women began to grip the public imagination, early 20th-century policymakers put a stop to it. In 2014, fears range from the merger of dangerous chem-spiced drugs and less devious Bob Marley-inspired spliff to worries over middle-class (white) kids ending up behind bars.

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