One Step to Dismantling Racial Inequality in our Criminal Justice System: Legalize Marijuana

When Philando Castile was pulled over for a broken taillight, Officer Yanez smelled “burnt marijuana” in Castile’s car. Yanez later told investigators that the presence of marijuana made him believe his life was in danger. The tragic results of that traffic stop bring into sharp focus the unfortunate legacy of decades of criminalizing possession and use of marijuana in Minnesota.

In 2015, 6,829 Minnesotans were arrested for marijuana possession — 39 percent of all the drug arrests in the state. Many of these arrests were young people of color who were victims of a law that is often enforced capriciously and unequally. If we as Minnesotans are seriously committed to addressing racial bias and criminal justice reform we must legalize the recreational use of marijuana for all people over 21 in our state.

Arresting and prosecuting Minnesotans for possession and use of marijuana unfairly impacts young people and people of color. Studies show that black and white adults use marijuana at similar rates. Yet, black Minnesotans are 6.4 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession, a rate that is over two times the national average. At a time when our criminal justice system incarcerates black men at a rate ten times higher than white men, we can’t afford a law that makes unjust arrests and convictions even more likely. By eliminating criminal penalties for marijuana possession and use, we remove one of the significant drivers that can lead to unjust and unequal arrests of people of color.

An arrest for marijuana possession can seriously and adversely impact a person’s life. A criminal record can lock them out of jobs, housing, education, and much more. The cost to them and to their families and communities can be devastating — and for what? Criminalizing marijuana certainly has not worked as intended, since use of marijuana has not changed in 30 years despite the ill conceived War on Drugs.

Of course, legalizing marijuana for adults is far from enough to resolve the racial disparities in our criminal justice system. By listening carefully to the real life experiences of our neighbors of color who are directly impacted by our inequitable system, we can begin to develop solutions.

One strong recommendation is to address the school to prison pipeline by ending the practice of over-labeling African American boys in our schools as emotionally and behaviorally disturbed. We must also eliminate policies like money bail for defendants who pose no threat to others and heavy court fees that trap poor people in the criminal justice system. Capping post-incarceration probation for most crimes at five years would reduce stigmatization and help people rebuild their lives. And perhaps most essential, we must address use of force by police with pre-recruitment screening, de-escalation training, and clearer rules and accountability. Reforming our criminal justice system will take time and commitment, but if we are serious about racial justice in Minnesota, legalizing adult use of marijuana is one important step.

There have been several good plans proposed in the Legislature to legalize the personal, recreational use of marijuana. Rep. Jon Applebaum, Rep. Tina Liebling and Rep. Carly Melin deserve recognition and thanks for their leadership. I believe the best plan would regulate marijuana just as we do with alcohol, limiting possession and use to adults 21 and older. Education on the actual effects of use and abuse is also an essential component of a comprehensive plan to reform marijuana laws. Such plans are already in place in eight states and Washington, D.C. with positive results reported across the country. States that have legalized recreational marijuana have experienced enormous windfalls in sales tax revenues, increased employment in agriculture, manufacturing and retail, and reductions in the black market and criminal elements formerly involved in illegal marijuana distribution.

Legalizing recreational marijuana will be good for our communities, allowing them to redirect police resources to dangerous crimes. It will be good for our economy, which will enjoy increased tax revenue and a boon to agriculture and small business. But most of all, legalizing marijuana will address a longstanding civil rights issue — the unfair enforcement of an outdated law in a manner that truly harms people of color in Minnesota. No Minnesotan should have their life and future ruined by an outdated law.