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We have been witnessing a broader acceptance and the normalization of recreational marijuana use all over the country. If the State you live in hasn’t legalized weed yet, you can be assured that it will soon enough.

But legalizing marijuana is extremely problematic for scores of people who’ve been charged and/or incarcerated for simple possession of marijuana as a result of the war on drugs. A war that has disproportionately affected people of color for decades.

Families destroyed.

Property lost.

Entire communities oppressed.

Many people consider pot as a gateway to much worse drugs resulting in ruining lives. Thing is, marijuana IS a gateway drug. Just not in the way most people use the terminology or it’s meaning.

Weed has been a gateway for law-enforcement to disproportionately target minority groups, despite marijuana use being equal regardless of race or ethnicity.

We all know about the history of the war or drugs. The real reason for it’s implementation. The purpose behind the idea. A tool of the oppressor.

If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, here’s a refresher.

The war on drugs came about in 1971 during Richard Nixon’s campaign and subsequent Presidency. Nixon’s public explanation for his first piece of legislation in his “war on drugs” was framed as a response to an increase in heroin addiction and the rising use of pot and hallucinogens by students.

Clearly bullshit.

We’ve always known Nixon’s motivation. It was pretty damned clear. But it wasn’t until his foreign policy chief, John Ehrlichman, told Harper’s in a 24 year-old interview that was published in 2016 confirmed the obvious.

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” — John Ehrlichman

That’s a pretty damning statement and a stark departure from Nixon’s public explanation. It was the first time the war on drugs had been plainly characterized as a political assault designed to help Nixon win, and keep, the White House.

Nixon’s political posturing wasn’t because of any war on drugs. In fact, his little war did nothing to try and curb drug use. All it did was criminalize drug use and provide an avenue for law-enforcement to target and incarcerate entire minority communities.

The institution of racism in America continued and expanded on this policy through every single presidency since Nixon was in office. This institution, which our system of law-enforcement is built on, dates back to the reconstruction era after the Civil War.

Nixon, taking advantage of an already race-based system of justice, used his war in response to the Civil Rights movement. Neither he, nor any other legislators, judges, or the law-enforcement community liked the idea of non-whites being treated as equals or having equal rights.

When this legislation came along, every white supremacist in power welcomed it with open arms. They finally found a way to legally continue oppressing people of color. And they liked the idea so much that they have continuously expanded on it until we got to where we are today.

Let’s be clear, there are plenty of people in power right now that would like to maintain the war on drugs and keep incarcerating people of color at will.

This isn’t just something that happened in the 1970’s. It is something that continues to this day. In fact, it has exponentially gotten worse through the decades with so many laws, on so many levels. Laws that police use to continually incarcerate people of color for victim-less crimes.

In 2013, The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released a report concluding: “On average, a Black person is 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though Blacks and whites use marijuana at similar rates. Such racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests exist in all regions of the country, in counties large and small, urban and rural, wealthy and poor, and with large and small Black populations. Indeed, in over 96% of counties with more than 30,000 people in which at least 2% of the residents are Black, Blacks are arrested at higher rates than whites for marijuana possession.”

It’s still happening right now:

  • A 2017 analysis of Pennsylvania arrest data found that Black adults were 8.2 times more likely than their white counterparts to be arrested for possessing marijuana — up from 6.5 percent in 2010.
  • A 2017 analysis of New York City arrest data found that Blacks and Latinos comprised 86 percent of those arrested for marijuana possession violations during the years 2014 to 2016.
  • A 2017 analysis of New Jersey arrest data found that African Americans are three times more likely than whites to be arrested for violating marijuana possession laws
  • A 2017 analysis of Virginia arrest data determined that African Americans are three times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as compared to whites and that this disparity is increasing

The negative impact on communities of color has been devastating and will affect those families for decades to come. It’s an unarguable truth.

Now that marijuana is being legalized state by state, we need to address the irreparable damage America has done to communities of color while white folks get the privilege of growing and selling legal weed. It’s absurd.

It’s not enough to declare anyone who is incarcerated a free person. It’s not enough to clear the criminal records of those arrested for having some weed at one point in their lives. We need to do much more than that.

What is being done in states like Texas, where they have been dragging their feet to legalize marijuana, is holding the line while the good ol’ boys get their hands on land to grow marijuana and write the legislation in their favor.

It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if all of these politicians who are suddenly retiring are doing so to get in on the opportunity of legal weed. John Boehner is already in on the game and it’s only a matter of time before the Paul Ryans of the world start getting in on it too.

It’s a slap in the face to anyone, including a smaller percentage of white folks, to have former lawmakers and law enforcement agents to take advantage of the legalization of marijuana after they were directly responsible for ruining the lives of so many American citizens.

Expunging their criminal records is not enough.

We have to ensure that we do more.

The legalization of marijuana must include restitution to be paid to all of the victims of the so-called war on drugs. It should include ownership interests in this burgeoning and profitable industry along with a financial compensation to benefit the victim’s families and business management training and education.

Everyone who has ever paid a price after being charged for marijuana possession deserves a piece of the pie. These folks have endured insurmountable economic and social suffering in ways that are incalculable.

How many families have been destroyed? How many children had to grow up without fathers or mothers? How much money has the private prison industrial complex made from these ridiculous charges? How much more suffering must these American citizens endure?

The answers to this questions aren’t easy to calculate. But one thing is certain, we can not allow any more families to suffer because of a drug war that was executed in such in a way that oppressed mostly people of color.

Americans who once had an opportunity to excel within our society had their lives ruined due to criminal records for possession of marijuana. For that, we must ensure that they benefit from the legalization of that which they were criminalized for.

It needs to go much further than the Marijuana Justice Act proposed by Democratic Senator Cory Booker, co-sponsored by Bernie Sanders.

Victims should be paid restitution in as many forms as possible.

And victims shouldn’t have to sue for it.

Written by

Anti-racist activist, essayist, and upcoming author; advocating for equality, justice, and accountability. Support my work at

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