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Who is the legalization of marijuana for? There will be less criminal and legal penalties for weed smokers, but will this be delivered equitably? There should be less violence occurring too, but who will experience less violence? The movement for the legalization of marijuana in America and Canada is racist: it allows white privileged people to profit off of an industry and economy that Black, brown and Indigenous people have been violently criminalized for over the last century.
Currently, in the United States, medical and recreational marijuana use is legal in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington. Laws regulating marijuana differ from Canada and the United States. Even in the United States, there is different legislation and regulation among states. Legislation determines if a drug is legal or illegal. Criminalization involves criminal penalties when drug laws are broken while decriminalization involves reducing or eliminating criminal penalties for drug related offences. Legalization and regulation involves regulating the production, cultivation, transportation, sale and taxation of a drug.
The CBC documents that in Vancouver, Canada there is a continuing growth to the already 93 medical marijuana dispensaries (np). The city had proposed legislation for the regulation of these shops. In Vancouver, public recreational marijuana use is tolerable. The Georgia Straight, writes that Vancouver has passed legislation for regulating medical marijuana dispensaries (np). Further they report that new rules include “dispensaries must not stand within 300 metres of a school or community centre, minors are not allowed inside the stores, and shops must comply with all relevant building, zoning, license, and development bylaws” (np). Licensing fees for dispensaries is about $30,000. Vancouver has started to enforce this new legislation in a relatively calm and orderly way.
Marc Emery AKA the “Prince of Pot” and his partner Jodie Emery continue to champion the advocacy work for the legalization of marijuana in Vancouver and across Canada. This advocacy is undeniably overrepresented with white faces while disproportionately Black, brown and Indigenous bodies are criminalized and face the gravest consequences due to the illegality of drugs. Yet, what often gets neglected in the discussion of legalizing marijuana is that this shift is occurring within a context of capitalism, ongoing colonization, white supremacy, the prison industrial complex and intoxication culture.
Weed is starting to have a social value. It’s considered healing and has medical properties supported with strong scientific evidence. Most importantly, weed is highly profitable. It’s cheap to produce and it’s taxable for the government. Unlike marijuana, other drugs like crack, MDMA or heroin are considered to have no social value because there is little scientific evidence to support it having a medical use and thus not having economic benefit. Heroin is completely illegal while prescription opiates like oxycotin and fentanyl are regulated for medical use. In Canada, Indigenous people are disproportionally criminalized and incarcerated for their opiate sales while in the US, Black and brown people face increased criminalization and incarceration. Oxys and fentanyl are produced and distributed by pharmaceutical companies, prescribed by doctors and sold at pharmacies. The Sackler family was listed in Forbes’ 2015 list of the richest families in the United States (np). The (white) family made its fortune with their pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma and sale of Oxycodone. The sale of drugs by Black, brown and Indigenous people is considered to be morally wrong while the sale of drugs by white people is considered a respectable profession. So drugs continue to be profitable, but for who?
Already there exists “street economies” where people profit from the sale of weed through street level dealing. These are people making a living and getting by selling drugs (I am really not thinking about the main drug suppliers on top). This work is done with risks: getting robbed or ripped off, the constant threat of going to jail and the threat of violence by either the police or other dealers. White people do participate in this underground “street economy” of drug dealing but Black, brown and Indigenous are racially profiled and targeted by police officers because they are considered to be violent threats. White people have the privilege of not constantly being profiled and don’t have to worry about the consequences police violence as much as people of colour.
Already this industry exists, yet who will profit from the legalization of marijuana? Who will profit and not have to risk much, or anything at all? Will street level dealers have the capital startup or investors to set up and sell weed legally? Maybe but not likely. Will they be able to gain employment in this “new” industry with criminal records? Will their knowledge, experience and skill be valued or dismissed? Will addicts have equal and equitable opportunity to get employed in these shops? Will Black and brown people be released from prisons in the US? Will Black and Indigenous people be released from prisons in Canada, given pardons for their marijuana related offenses and given proper education and employment to survive and thrive? I wish. So please think again, who is the legalization of marijuana for?
The legalization of marijuana is dependent on regulation and support from the government. This shift from illegal to legally regulated economies will stifle the invisible markets and unemploy the unemployable. The “drug war” has a complex history made up of several separate wars around the world all rooted in imperialism, colonialism, xenophobia and racism. Alcohol was used just like germs and guns intended to commit genocide against Indigenous people on Turtle Island, popularly known as North America. Crack use exploded in low-income neighborhoods of New York during the 1980s, resulting in increased violence among black communities. Alcohol and crack were used as biochemical weapons to disavow black and Indigenous people. The United States Sentencing Commission reported that Black men were more likely to receive long prison sentences for drug trafficking offences than white people (24). The Sentencing Project comments on the racial disparity in the United States writing “More than 60% of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities. For Black males in their thirties, 1 in every 10 is in prison or jail on any given day. These trends have been intensified by the disproportionate impact of the “war on drugs,” in which two-thirds of all persons in prison for drug offenses are people of color” (np). These statistics illustrate that the “drug war” continues to disproportionately disenfranchise Black and brown people in the United States. White people benefit when racialized people are incarcerated because it allows them to continue to exercise there liberties and rights.
In his novel Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War On Drugs, Johann Hari outlines the historically racialized beginnings of the drug war. Yet conveniently (because he is white), neglects to actually call the drug war what it is: racist. The war on drugs in America was started as a racist war against Black drug users in a context of racism and segregation specific to its time. If the war on drugs is a colonial, racist and class based war, then it would require anti-colonial, anti-racist and anti-capitalist action. The ideological focus for legalization of marijuana should be shifted from “legalization for all” to considering “legalization for who?”
Advocacy work to legalize and regulate weed serves the status quo: white, able-bodied, middle-class/upper middle-class/wealthy, non-addicted and non-criminal citizens. The legalization of marijuana will have a significant impact on many people but not all will benefit from this legislation. The needs and interests of the most marginalized will continue to be overlooked. What about the decriminalization of cocaine, crystal meth and heroin? How come this is not being proposed alongside the legalization of marijuana movement? Who will have the “right” and “liberty” to smoke weed without fear of repercussions? Will this legislation be a privilege that only some will be able to enjoy?
Since advocacy work for the legalization of marijuana is led by white faces, representing the status quo, then arguably, the decriminalization of all illegal drugs is more favourable to those most marginalized by legislation that makes weed illegal or legal. In the zine, Towards A Less Fucked Up World: Sobriety and the Anarchist Struggle, Nikita Riotfag defines intoxication culture as “a set of institutions, behaviours, and mindsets centered around consumption of drugs and alcohol”. Within Western intoxication culture, most people drink alcohol. Most people have at least smoked weed and at least understand it as culturally tolerable. Heroin, crack and coke, not so much. Decriminalization of all illegal substances would make sure addicts, drug users and street workers including hustlers and sex workers could use with reduced fears of repercussions.
Is the legalization of marijuana about liberty and rights or about social justice? Rights and liberties are granted to citizens and those considered to have social value. Those considered disposable and marginalized face the most violent and grave consequences because of the criminalization of drug use.
Drug addicts, disabled and substance users must have their needs centered. Black, brown and Indigenous people must have their needs centered. Trans and gender non-conforming people must have their needs centered. Sex workers and street level dealers must have their needs centered. Drug use is profitable whether its illegal or not, it just depends who is profiting. The legalization of marijuana is for the liberties of white people, not those of us who face the gravest consequences targeted by the drug war.
Baluja, Tamara. “93 marijuana dispensaries in Vancouver identified by CBC.” CBC. May 1, 2015. Web. < http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/multimedia/93-marijuana-dispensaries-in-vancouver-identified-by-cbc-1.3058501>.
Lupick, Travis. “City of Vancouver begins crackdown on marijuana dispensaries selling edibles or allowing smoking on site.” Georgia Straight. July 24, 2015. Web. <http://www.straight.com/news/496036/city-vancouver-begins-crackdown-marijuana-dispensaries-selling-edibles-or-allowing>.
Morrell, Alex. “The OxyCotin Clan: The $14 Billion Newcomer to Forbes 2015 List of Richest U.S. Families.” Forbes. July 1, 2015. Web. < http://www.forbes.com/sites/alexmorrell/2015/07/01/the-oxycontin-clan-the-14-billion-newcomer-to-forbes-2015-list-of-richest-u-s-families/ >.
Riotfag, Nikita. Towards A Less Fucked Up World: Sobriety and Anarchist Struggle. Self-published, 2010. Zine.
The Sentencing Project. “Racial Disparity.” The Sentencing Project- Research and Advocacy For Reform. Accessed on August 31, 2015. Web. < http://www.sentencingproject.org/template/page.cfm?id=122 >.
United States Sentencing Commission. “Demographic Differences in Sentencing.” Report on the Continuing Impacts of United States v. Booker on Federal Sentencing. 2012. Web. < http://www.ussc.gov/news/congressional-testimony-and-reports/booker-reports/report-continuing-impact-united-states-v-booker-federal-sentencing >