I am very much on the #LegalizeIt bandwagon, but like most things that become mainstream, the progress that’s been made on the cannabis front is leaving a lot of people behind. It’s no accident that most of my friends who have a lot to say about legalization — and most writers and activists I respect who push for legalization — are white. That’s because white people are the ones who benefit the most when pot becomes “legal.” I put legal in quotes here because legalization, as it has been constructed around marijuana, does not have a blanket effect. Not enough cages are being emptied, and too many continue to be filled.
With police making more arrests for drug possession, nationally, than for all other crimes combined, there is clearly a crisis to be addressed, but is that crisis being addressed in the culture of legalization work in the United States?
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Like gun laws, there are distinctions of access that dictate who marijuana becomes legal for. I, for example, am medically eligible for medical marijuana under Illinois state law, but if you looked into the particulars of how that law is applied, you would quickly understand why it’s a process I won’t engage with. Put simply, as a criminalized person who departs from respectability, medical marijuana policies in our state were not designed to facilitate my participation. But these distinctions of access run disturbingly deeper than whether I can make use of legalized, medicinal cannabis.
States that have legalized marijuana have not legalized street sales. Basically, pot is getting more legal for those with access — for those who can afford to buy into access — and for those who can afford to live where there’s access. That’s right: Legal pot is a highly gentrifying phenomenon, as Denver has tragically discovered, with skyrocketing rates of homelessness.
As my own state considers legalization for recreational use, I find myself weighing the potential positives of legalization against the threat of being priced out of my home. In my own city, the criminalization of Black and Brown youth is one of my deepest concerns — one that goes wholly unaddressed by the presence of posh dispensaries. And what of the youth who’ve already been ground under by the system because they dared to smoke a joint? What of the lives shattered by a war on drugs most now acknowledge was pointless? Some in my state are touting legalized, recreational marijuana as an answer to our state’s budget woes, but if a massive influx of cash is generated by a transition away from caging people for cannabis, should that wealth not be redirected as reparations to those who were robbed of their liberty for a now-normalized recreational activity?
None of this means people shouldn’t enjoy one of life’s little pleasures — or tend to our cannabis-related medical needs. I’m a “smoke if you got ’em” kind of person. But let’s not allow the desire to make a thing mainstream, and thus more safe for those living in the mainstream, to take the reality of the drug war out of focus. Every major drug prohibition in the United States was hatched to target a marginalized community. Here in 2017, we see marijuana on the verge of being legalized for those with sufficient economic and social privilege. But simply removing a product from the grips of street economies — and thus, the survival incomes of many marginalized people — is not an act of liberation. It is a perhaps necessary, but wholly flawed and questionable start, and we need to demand more.
We must demand an end to all drug prohibition, and the severing of every tentacle of the drug war. We must not allow the same harms that have always been embedded in anti-drug rhetoric to be inflicted on people living in the margins, while those with more access pick out their favorite cannabis gummy worms in polished dispensaries. Because in truth, there is nothing new or remotely liberating about people with more resources facing fewer risks when it comes to smoking pot.