How We Can Reap Reparations From Marijuana Reform


In September, a coalition of 60 organizations that collectively make up the Movement for Black Lives issued a series of six platform demands to promote black power, freedom and justice. Included among these demands is an end to the criminalization, incarceration and killing of black people in the name of the various named and unnamed “wars” that have been fought against our communities.


The most recent and pernicious of these wars is the “war on drugs,” which for more than 40 years has been relentlessly pursued in primarily black and brown communities. The war on drugs is a particularly pernicious war because through its rhetoric, imagery and practices, it has convinced the victims of the war to turn on one another—to view whole segments of the community as the enemy and to ignore police abuses as long as they’re directed toward “the enemy,” branded as “drug traffickers” and their customers.

This year, voters in California have a unique opportunity to strike a significant blow against the war on drugs and begin the process of repairing communities harmed by decades of racially biased drug-law enforcement.

After more than 70 years of fighting a war against weed, marijuana is as plentiful and available as ever and our appetite for it has not diminished, but the public has come to understand that our response to illicit drug use causes more harm than good. This is not a problem that can be solved by law enforcement; we can’t arrest and incarcerate our way from drug abuse and addiction.

For decades we’ve been led to believe that the drug war was being fought against predatory organizations that brought premature death and violence to communities. We’ve come to realize that drug-law enforcement primarily targets low-hanging fruit: drug users and their local suppliers, not cartel kings and money launderers. For leaders in communities of color, who tend to have conservative views about drug use, they’ve been confronted with an essential question: Which is more harmful to a person’s life—using an illicit drug or getting arrested for using an illicit drug?

The reality of mass incarceration, and its disproportionate impact on black and brown communities, has led many to understand that the impact of getting caught up in the criminal-justice system is more harmful to a person’s life outcomes than the use of most illicit drugs. This fact is especially true when it comes to marijuana, the illicit drug most widely used and the basis for the majority of drug arrests nationally. In reality, the war on drugs has really been a “war on marijuana,” and the cost to our communities, particularly our youths, has been steep.

Twenty years ago, California led the nation when it legalized medical marijuana. Opponents predicted dire consequences, and the federal government threatened to prosecute doctors who recommended it, but eventually sanity prevailed and other states soon followed. At present, 25 states have enacted laws to legalize medical marijuana. Four states (Alaska, Oregon, Washington and Colorado) and Washington, D.C., have gone further and voted to legalize recreational use of marijuana.


This fall, voters in California and eight other states will have the opportunity to make a similar choice. Of these, California is the largest and most important. The success of California’s initiative Proposition 64, aka the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, will be a game changer.

Prop 64 will provide voters with an opportunity to build on the efforts to reform the state’s criminal-justice system and reinvest in low-income, resource-poor communities. The ballot initiative would, among other things, begin to repair some of the damage inflicted on poor minority communities by racially biased marijuana-law enforcement. Another important demand of the Movement for Black Lives is the demand for reparations for past and continuing harms:

Reparations: the act of making amends, offering expiation, or giving satisfaction for a wrong or injury; something done or given as amends or satisfaction.


Over the years, hundreds of thousands of Californians have been arrested, prosecuted and stigmatized for possessing, selling or growing cannabis, resulting in the loss of freedom, voting rights, education, housing and other social benefits. A disproportionate number of those affected have been poor people of color.

Prop 64 provides sentencing relief, resentencing and release for people incarcerated for marijuana offenses, clearing records and removing barriers for re-entry into society. Minors under 18 will not get a criminal record for youthful indiscretions. It authorizes resentencing and record expungement for prior marijuana convictions and eliminates the use of a prior drug conviction as a barrier to jobs and licenses in the industry.


Communities that have been harmed by marijuana-law enforcement will directly benefit from passage of the Prop 64. According to the state's independent legislative analyst and governor’s finance director, these reforms will save the state and local government up to $100 million annually in reduced taxpayer costs—and raise up to $1 billion in new tax revenues annually. The majority of these new revenues will be directed toward the following:

  • Teen drug prevention and treatment
  • Training law enforcement to recognize driving under the influence of drugs
  • Protecting the environment from the harms of illegal marijuana cultivation
  • Supporting economic development in communities disproportionately affected by marijuana prohibition

We should feel good about doing these things, but it will be important for affected communities to organize to ensure that they receive their fair share of new revenues and that those revenues are directed toward the programs and services they want. Prop 64 has the support of a broad swath of California organizations concerned with health, safety and justice—most notably the NAACP, whose state President Alice Huffman said the following:

The current system is counterproductive, financially wasteful and racially biased, and the people of California have repeatedly called for it to be fixed. This measure will ensure that California is not unjustly criminalizing responsible adults, while also ensuring that our children are protected while the state receives hundreds of millions of new dollars for vital government and community-based programs.


If you support the goals of the Movement for Black Lives, you should vote yes on Prop 64 in November.

Also in the High Society series:

Where Recreational Weed Is Legal, Should Those in Prison for Weed Crimes Get a Puff, Puff, Pass?


Why Black People Are Being Left Out of the Weed Boom

Are Blacks Missing Out on the Medical Benefits of Weed?

Calif.’s Recreational-Weed Bill Could Be a Game Changer

Deborah Peterson Small is an internationally renowned expert on drug policy. She is the founder of Break the Chains and a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University.