It’s not hard to picture: A stereotypical young white male, collared shirt half-tucked, face up toward the ceiling, inhaling the weed he just bought from his dealer tucked away in a suburban home bedroom. He exhales, a cloud of smoke billowing out of his mouth smelling of burnt stems and privilege.
People of color simply do not enjoy this experience—their highs are clouded by decades of disproportionate arrest rates and the stigma attached to minorities’ relationships with illicit drugs.
As states move to legalize marijuana, it is important to remember that the effects aren't the same for everyone.
As Vox wrote last year, “After legalization, black people are still arrested at higher rates for marijuana than white people...Both groups saw big drops in marijuana arrests, but large racial disparities remain.”
To be clear, the disparities are not explained through marijuana usage rates; surveys have found that black people and white people smoke weed at similar rates.
The disproportionate arrest rates are perhaps best understood through a societal and institutional lens: the lingering history of the War on Drugs, the bias and oversurviellance toward black communities, socioeconomic differences and an overall criminal justice system riddled by inequality.
Take the following, a case study document by writer P.R. Lockheart in a piece published days before 4/20 last year.
“Colorado [was] one of the first states to legalize pot back in 2012, and the first state to allow recreational marijuana sales in 2014. According to a 2016 report from the Colorado Department of Public Safety, the arrest rate for black people for weed-related offenses is still nearly three times that of whites.”
“While marijuana arrests in general have decreased, this hasn’t affected all groups equally. The decrease in the number of marijuana arrests by race is the greatest for White arrestees (‐51 percent) compared to Hispanics (‐33 percent) and African‐Americans (‐25 percent),” the report notes.
So, if you’re one of the privileged, able to hit a joint without anxiety lingering in your smoke filled-room, what can you do?
First, educate yourself. Do not be a blind consumer. Understand the history of drugs, the racial disparities in the criminal justice system and the ways that they affect people of color.
Second, donate time, resources or money (what’s one less gram?) to groups that advocate for racial reform in the legalization movement including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Drug Policy Alliance.