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.
Black buy-in will be crucial to the political success of legalization. Yet, while pressed to keep young black people out of prison for pot possession, we’re not asking if we’ll be OK when our kids suddenly having greater access to it. Grumpy Sunday preachers might think that sagging jeans are a big problem—just wait till legal weed drops. Marijuana use is currently at 50 percent for Latino teens and 40 percent for black teens, according to the Partnership at DrugFree.org, as well as the 5-percentage-point increase in cigar use among black teens. And there are increasing worries about the use of embalming-fluid-laced cigarettes and weed (occasionally referred to as “dippers”), as pointed out in a 2012 Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law study.
Those trends raise a big question: What kind of weed will certain populations get? Will market forces command higher grades of pot sold to some and lower grades sold to others? Suburban (and mostly white) teens will have little need to venture into the hood for dime bags. The legal purchase of quality cannabis could be one sprawling town center away.
Could that pose serious problems for underserved populations? Low-income, working- and middle-class communities of colors are already challenged by access to better housing, health care and groceries. But what happens when these populations access the marijuana marketplace for medicinal or recreational purposes? Will they be able to afford it?
And will street-level dealers, pushed to the edge of extinction by legalized pot, rely exclusively on cheaper, synthetic pot as a way to keep their business afloat? What sort of public health crisis will that cause for communities already shaken and battered by chronic disease? A recent United Nations report shows that chemically enhanced pot substitutes have grown by more than 50 percent worldwide.
Just as racism determined old weed prohibition, new weed could just as easily be segregated by socioeconomic variables that the national discussion ignores. Maybe cannabis is the next frontier of wonder drugs, and the science points to a 3,000-year-old habit that could find the cure for cancer. But in the meantime, we need to poke through the smoke of race and politics and seriously question how a drug habit suddenly became a top public-policy priority.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and frequent contributor to The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. You can reach him via Twitter.