Marijuana Legalization, What Does it Mean?

Five states will be voting on the legalization of recreational marijuana in the upcoming elections, plus four more voting on medical use. What is at stake is much bigger than simply the right for adults to get high, the movement to end cannabis prohibition is part of the same cultural battle as Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ rights, and equality for women.

Marijuana prohibition was promoted early on in explicitly racist terms and is part of the same historical policy framework as Jim Crow and segregation. When prohibition first went into effect nearly a century ago marijuana was not smoked by white people and not part of their culture, marijuana was primarily used by blacks (especially in the jazz music scene) and Mexican immigrants, both of whom were targets for law enforcement. The name marijuana was Mexican slang for cannabis and was seized upon by prohibitionists who worked purposefully to disassociate the “devil weed” from the common and familiar cannabis medicines and hemp fibers that were traditional American products. Prohibitionists have always known that cannabis does not kill or induce violence and is not a threat to public health and safety, the purpose of marijuana prohibition was to fund and empower law enforcement at the expense of minorities under the thin guise of enforcing public morality.

Conservative cultural hostility to marijuana is deeply held and is rooted in the same Judeo-Christian value system that demonizes homosexuality and limits women’s rights. The history of cannabis use as a fiber, food, and drug goes back over 10,000 years to the dawn of civilization and it was widely used in religion. The Hindu Shaivites use of ganja predates Moses and is the oldest continuous religious practice in the world. But the Judeo-Christian culture never adopted cannabis drugs, its use was in rival religions, and that is the genesis of the cultural hostility to marijuana that we see today. Just as the rise of gay rights and feminism is an explicit challenge to dominant Judeo-Christian cultural values, cannabis use is part of the same battle.

American cultural attitudes towards cannabis are shifting in parallel to its evolving views on same-sex marriage. Opponents to marijuana legalization and same-sex marriage alike have long argued that changing current laws and norms would undermine social stability and threaten society (in ways never clearly articulated). Only after the laws were changed in individual states and the results showed that the sky did not fall did momentum build for a shift at the federal level. Massachusetts was the first state to legalize gay marriage in 2003 followed by a series of cities and states over the next decade. Even as opponents to gay marriage ramped up their efforts public support grew as the practice became more common and the public could see just how unthreatening homosexuality really is. In 2015 the US Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution guarantees the right to same-sex marriage in all states, ending that battle once and for all. Twenty years of experience with medical marijuana and a few years of legal recreational use in states is providing similar real world evidence that cannabis has benefits as medicine and also for the economy and that fears of ending prohibition are overstated.

The Black Lives Matter movement has drawn renewed attention to police brutality, but has not generally made the connection to ending the war on drugs. Prohibitionist policy is designed to empower law enforcement to arrest and prosecute millions of people, and it is well known that racial minorities have borne the brunt of the policy. One does not need to personally approve of marijuana to oppose prohibition since there are many tools to reducing drug use other than law enforcement. Tobacco use has dropped dramatically over the last two decades without arresting anyone, yet drug prohibition remains in effect and people continue to be harassed by police for the mere suspicion of carrying marijuana. We have seen many examples recently of how routine encounters with the police can result in the beatings, shootings, and deaths of innocent people, especially if they are black. Ending marijuana prohibition and the war on drugs would help to reduce the problems of police brutality by eliminating one of the primary justifications police use every day to confront citizens.

In November, California will vote to legalize recreational use of marijuana and so will Massachusetts, Maine, Arizona, and Nevada. The Trudeau administration in Canada has also committed to national legalization in 2017. If all of these measures pass we will likely be looking at a watershed moment that will force the debate for marijuana legalization at the federal level in the coming years. The prohibitionists will fight to hold on though and the battle will be heated. If you live in one of the states voting for legalization of recreational or medical marijuana and you wish to see the cultural shifts that will allow blacks, gays, and women to have equality to white men then it is important to vote yes for legal cannabis this November.