Weed and Duke Privilege: Examining the Racist History of Marijuana Policy

Polis: Center for Politics
5 min readFeb 27, 2024

Katie Seithel (PPS ‘25)

Katie Seithel (PPS ‘25)

Duke Dope. Blue Devil Bud. GTHC Grass. Whatever you call it, I’m sure most Duke students can agree that weed is incredibly prevalent on this campus. As such, I’ve compiled a short list of what I believe to be universal marijuana experiences at Duke.

  1. Complaining about the resident stoners hotboxing your dorm’s common room
  2. Being invited to a 2 am hang in the gardens (wink wink)
  3. Meeting someone in your freshman seminar whose entire personality consists of listening to Bob Marley and wearing Sublime t-shirts (okay maybe that one was a bit personal)

Maybe these are relatable, and maybe we’ve even engaged in some of Duke’s weed culture ourselves. But the bottom line is that the general Duke population (white, wealthy, well-connected) can smoke marijuana and get away with it. And that’s incredibly privileged.

Now, this isn’t to say that marijuana is unsafe or that it should be criminalized. After all, marijuana has been used medicinally and recreationally for centuries. However, despite the fact that the majority of Americans support legalization, marijuana-related arrests remain alarmingly high. In fact, of the 1.5 million drug arrests made in the United States last year, 1.3 million were for marijuana-related offenses, with 40% of these being small-time possessions. And while marijuana legalization is growing, its criminalization continues to disproportionately impact minorities.

To better understand this point, let’s look at a specific case. Derek Haris, a Black man from Louisiana, was sentenced to 20 years (and later life-in-prison) for selling just 0.69 grams of marijuana. He was only recently released after spending 9 years in prison. His case represents a positive turn toward pardons, but it also highlights how many languish in prison for trivial marijuana offenses.

It’s further important to note that though both races consume cannabis at roughly the same rate, police arrest black men four times as much for marijuana related offenses. In some states, these statistics rise even higher — with black people arrested as much as 8, 10, or (in one Wisconsin county) 30 times as much as white people. Sentencing also differs, with Black men more likely to face longer jail times. This has implications on the rest of their life, as they are often barred from voting and they must disclose their felon status on job applications.

To be clear, these statistics are not coincidental, but rather the result of long-seeded plans to demonize Black communities for engaging in the same activities as their white counterparts. For instance, under the Nixon administration, officials prosecuted Black Americans heavily for cannabis-related offenses through the War on Drugs. As Nixon’s Assistant for Domestic Affairs, John Ehrlichman, remarked, “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but…we could disrupt those communities…Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

This last point was apt — even with ample evidence proving the safety of marijuana, Nixon stubbornly pursued the War on Drugs and sent thousands of Black and Brown men to prison. The number of incarcerated people skyrocketed from 240,000 in 1975 to 1.43 million in 2019, with 20% of these people having a drug offense listed as their most serious crime. Moreover, the rates of Black and Latino arrests tripled during this time.

Nixon’s view on marijuana was heavily influenced by Harry Anslinger, commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in the 1930s. Anslinger’s hard stance against marijuana was often cited to support the War on Drugs. Recent legislators, of course, have ignored the largely racist motivations behind Anslinger’s stance, choosing to leave out Anslinger’s characterization of “most mari­huana smokers” as “Negroes, Hispanics, jazz musicians, and entertainers.”

Even with legalization successes, men like Derek Harris still face the consequences of marijuana policy’s racist history as arrests continue to increase. Those lucky enough to receive a pardon, like Harris, still face the harsh transition from prison. Americans must do more to change our racist drug policies.

It is also important to acknowledge that many at Duke have the luxury of experimenting with drugs without facing the same consequences as minority communities. The racial disparities in drug policy are clear and significant, as demonstrated by the disproportionate number of Black and Brown people who are arrested, convicted, and incarcerated for drug-related offenses.

The reality is that in a different part of town, the smell of weed that permeates Duke’s residential hallways would draw a very different response than just a grumble and an eye roll from an RA.

Work Cited

  1. Jones, Kay, & Andrew, Scottie. “A man who was sentenced to life in prison for selling $30 of marijuana will be freed.” 2020. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/08/us/man-freed-life-sentence-marijuana-trnd/index.html
  2. “Marijuana Addiction: Rates & Usage Statistics”. 2023. National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics. https://drugabusestatistics.org/marijuana-addiction/#incarceration
  3. McPartland, J.M., Hegman, W. & Long, T. Cannabis in Asia: its center of origin and early cultivation, based on a synthesis of subfossil pollen and archaeobotanical studies. Veget Hist Archaeobot 28, 691–702 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00334-019-00731-8
  4. Mosher, Clayton J., and Atkins, Scott. In the Weeds : Demonization, Legalization, and the Evolution of U. S. Marijuana Policy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2019. Accessed March 9, 2023. ProQuest Ebook Central.
  5. Morrison, Aaron. “50-year war on drugs imprisoned millions of Black Americans.” 2021. Associated Press. PBS News Hour. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/50-year-war-on-drugs-imprisoned-millions-of-black-americans
  6. “Racial Disparity in Marijuana Arrests.” 2020. NORML. https://norml.org/marijuana/fact-sheets/racial-disparity-in-marijuana-arrests/. =
  7. Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: New Press‌.
  8. Green, Ted Van. “Americans overwhelmingly say marijuana should be legal for medical or recreational use.” 2022. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2022/11/22/americans-overwhelmingly-say-marijuana-should-be-legal-for-medical-or-recreational-use/

Katie Seithel is from Saint Louis, MO and an Undergraduate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. This piece was submitted as an op-ed in the Spring ‘23 PUBPOL 301 course. This content does not represent the official or unofficial views of the Sanford School, Polis, Duke University, or any entity or individual other than the author.

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