How to Use Cannabis Tax Dollars to Address Injustice

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While it’s now essentially indisputable that the war on drugs has been an across-the-board failure, no one has suffered more from this ill-conceived policy than people and communities of color — a fact that staggering statics make clear.

For example, nearly 80% of people in federal prison and 60% of people in state prison for drug offenses are black or Latino despite similar levels of drug use among whites. As a result, all too many families and communities of color have been ravaged by the drug war, leaving them vulnerable and significantly disadvantaged in the race toward the American dream.

Such discriminatory and debilitating enforcement tactics seem particularly egregious when it comes to cannabis. While it has long been known that cannabis has some therapeutic benefit and limited potential for harm (at least when compared with legal substances such as alcohol and tobacco), cannabis remains federally categorized as a highly addictive and dangerous drug with no medical potential. One of the primary reasons for this glaring discrepancy between science and law originates from historical efforts to cabin the influence of people of color on “white society.”

For example, the progenitor of the American drug war, Harry Anslinger, had the following to say about cannabis: “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”

Similarly, President Nixon, who escalated the drug war with his passage of the Controlled Substance Act, was notably aware that cannabis was not the dangerous substance he purported it to be. Instead, his decision to brand cannabis with the same Schedule 1 status as heroin was based not on science, but his desire to disrupt the black empowerment and anti-war movements. It should therefore (unfortunately) come as no surprise that a policy forged by racism has engendered racist outcomes, regardless of whether the majority of individuals who currently enforce the law are racist themselves.

Thankfully, however, our nation has begun to wake up to the fact that what we’ve been told by the government about cannabis is more akin to propaganda than fact. As a result, one by one, states are beginning to lift their prohibitions to create legal (at least at the state level) markets for the plant. While legal cannabis is making many entrants into this new industry wealthy, people of color, who have not only suffered the most under prohibition but have been integral architects of cannabis culture, are notably underrepresented in the industry. Even though people of color are slightly more common in cannabis than other industries, the vast majority of investors and executives in cannabis are still white.

Perhaps even more concerning is the fact that legalization has had little impact on prejudicial law enforcement. While states that have legalized have seen drastic decreases in cannabis arrests, black individuals are still arrested in some such states at 10 times the rate of white individuals despite similar consumption levels. Legalization therefore is not in and of itself sufficient to rectify the injustices of the war on drugs.

Thankfully, some jurisdictions are taking the drug war’s disproportionate impact on communities of color into account when crafting their cannabis regulations. For example, progressive cities like Los Angeles and Oakland have enacted social equity programs aimed at ensuring that individuals of color are given access to the industry. Both cities, for instance, require a certain proportion of the local cannabis business permits to be issued to individuals who have been demographically most effected by the war on drugs. While the sentiment behind these programs is certainly well-meaning, they have unfortunately had limited success and have resulted in some flagrant failures. For example, it was recently discovered that $10 million originally earmarked for Los Angeles’s social equity program was diverted to pay for police overtime — an infuriating revelation to say the least.

Regardless, hopefully, cities will continue to adopt and refine social equity programs so as to provide the people most affected by the drug war with lucrative opportunities to participate in the legal market. After all, how unfair would it be for communities of color to bare nearly all of the burden of criminalization but reap none of the benefits of legalization.

But even if social equity programs do prove successful, they will not be enough to mitigate the extensive havoc wreaked by the drug war on communities of color. No matter how robust a city’s social equity program might be, only a small percentage of the people in these communities will directly benefit. Additionally, social equity programs cannot help those affected by the drug war who have no desire to enter the cannabis industry. Consequently, while social equity programs are necessary for addressing some of the injustices created by the drug war, they are not sufficient. Instead, more must be done to uplift targeted communities from the fallout of the drug war, hence the following proposal.

There is little debate that a good education is the best avenue to success and well-being in our country. It’s also no secret that the communities that have been most affected by the war on drugs are also home to some of the worst schools in our country. Children in these communities have therefore been doubly fucked (excuse my language but it seems appropriate here) on an institutional level by under-funded school systems and over-active police forces, making jail as likely a prospect as college for some.

If we are really serious about mitigating the harms of the drug war we need to give children in affected communities meaningful tools to flourish, and there is no more efficient way to do so than providing a great education. It would therefore seem only fair to use a significant portion of the tax revenue generated by the cannabis industry to turn the schools in affected communities into some of the best in the country. Such a plan would provide children in traditionally targeted communities with a multitude of ways to thrive in the economy beyond directly participating in the cannabis industry.

As of now, jurisdictions are unsurprisingly not using their cannabis tax revenues this way. For example, while some of Colorado’s cannabis tax revenue has gone toward fixing schools, funds are not directed at schools in the communities most affected by the drug war. Regardless, the state is allocating less money toward education than voters originally expected.

In Los Angeles, which is home to some of the worst schools in the country, the vast majority of tax revenue is allocated to policing illegal cannabis operations. Unfortunately, many of these illegal shops are located in communities of color such that enforcement trends in the legal era are beginning to mirror those of the drug war. Such an outcome is particularly troubling given that, as noted above, money allocated for Los Angeles’s social equity program is instead being used to fund such policing tactics.

We must do more than pay lip-service to addressing the injustices of the war on drugs. Instead, its time for advocates of social justice to band together and demand that lawmakers spend cannabis tax dollars in way that significantly lessens, rather than exacerbates, the harms of the war on drugs. While there is no perfect solution for reconciling these deep inequities, by vastly improving schools in affected communities we can begin to mitigate some of the related harms in the most effective and efficient way possible.

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