President Joe Biden’s announcement that he was pardoning thousands of people convicted on federal marijuana possession charges last Thursday surprised thousands of Black Americans who were disenfranchised with low-level drug charges. Advocates are saying this is a major step to undo the damage that the United States’ War on Drugs started by then-President Richard Nixon, which disproportionately focused on Black people, NPR reports.
About 68% of Americans support legalizing marijuana across the board, and 19 states have legalized recreational marijuana use. However, Black people are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana, as noted by the ACLU. Just in New York alone, people of color comprised 94 percent of those arrested for simply having marijuana. Figures such as NAACP Vice President of policy and legislative affairs Patrice Willoughby acknowledge how the overreach of drug enforcement has inflicted unjust pain on Black communities.
“The failed policies on drug criminalization have ensnared many on nonviolent, marijuana offenses,” said Patrice Willoughby, vice president of policy and legislative affairs at the NAACP.
“And this has derailed hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people for conduct which is legal and which is disproportionately applied to the African-American community.”
The Biden administration’s executive order is due to assist “6,500 citizens and lawful permanent residents convicted between 1992 and 2021 of simple marijuana possession charges under federal law or D.C. statutes.” Unfortunately, the order does not cover any individuals in federal prison who are currently in jail for simple marijuana offenses. While there’s more to be done, some believe Biden’s action is a great first step.
“We’ve seen since the 1970s that marijuana policy was intentionally and malevolently constructed to target the African American community,” Willoughby said. “And too many people have been caught up as a result of that and have been denied jobs, opportunity, housing, and other benefits of this country because of a malevolent policy.”
“This is a step towards restorative justice,” she said.