Post-legalization, drug laws continue to wreak havoc on communities throughout the country. The cannabis industry shouldn’t leave more vulnerable victims of the war on drugs in the dust.
While lobbying for cannabis legalization more than a decade ago, before the adult-use industry existed, we often would tie cannabis prohibition to the drug war and highlight the racial impact our drug policies had as a reason to legalize cannabis. From 1999-2008, of the more than five million cannabis possession arrests that were reported to the FBI, 28.5 percent of those taken into custody were black and 69.6 percent white. This is disparate, as the 2010 Census shows nationally 12.6 percent black and 74.2 percent white total populations. Cannabis prohibition continues to be part of the broader war on drugs, and is disastrous for society — particularly for communities of color. Within the last decade as legalization, decriminalization and medical cannabis efforts mounted, so too, incredibly, did cannabis arrests for black people. From 2009-2018, while white people predictably benefited from a more than 5 percent fall in arrests, the arrest rate for black people increased proportionately, to become nearly a third of all cannabis possession arrests. The injustice gap has grown, as black people still only account for 12.7 percent of the population.
Like cannabis prohibition, there is no doubt the drug war has failed. Drug overdose deaths have more than tripled from just under 20,000 in 1999 to more than 67,000 in 2018, and drug-abuse violation arrests are up, with a more than 120,000 arrest increase from 2008 to 2017.
Although one could argue support for the drug war was motivated by a well-intentioned concern about drug use, the drug war is not reducing the harms of drug use or abuse. We already know the best way to do that is by reducing criminalization, increasing access to harm reduction, and other forms of medical assistance. The drug war is nothing more than a policing tool targeted at communities of color (as outlined in the ACLU’s Race & The War on Drugs Position Paper) that’s costing taxpayers billions of dollars to enforce while harming drug users through criminalization rather than helping them.
It’s not just the cannabis industry's responsibility to advocate for ending the drug war because we’ve benefited from using it as a talking point, but also because we’re in the best position to do it. This emerging industry seeks to transition an illicit market into a legitimate one, and in the process raise the social awareness and advancement of the country as a whole. We are changing the process of criminalizing that entire supply chain — from growers, to sellers, consumers and patients — into a legitimate enterprise where no one has to go to jail. These changes to criminal laws, combined with defunding and replacing police departments with public servants who can serve all communities, are vital to assuring the future we all want to see when we say “Black Lives Matter.”
Doing this will not only help make society better, but could also help your business. As I’ve noted in previous posts, whereas it was once considered taboo for brands to engage in political statements, now more than ever consumers want to support brands that advocate for issues they care about. Cannabis consumers, who are still criminalized throughout the country, are very aware of the harms that drug laws and enforcement have on society and individuals.
If you’re in the cannabis industry or benefiting from the legalization of cannabis, I encourage you to speak out about the harms of current drug laws. You can do this by writing op/eds or letters to the editor in your local paper, running letter-writing campaigns to petition local elected officials, and scheduling meetings (or phone calls) with lawmakers who represent your district. Green Flower also has an advocacy certificate for those who want to learn more about how to build alliances and change policy.
Evan Nison is the President and Founder of NisonCo, one of the first cannabis specific PR firms which has worked with over 125 cannabis companies since 2013. He also is on the Board of Directors of NORML National and Students for Sensible Drug Policy.