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.
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.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.