Activism & Information

Legalizing weed the right way

November 19, 2019

By Spencer Bokat-Lindell
Joe Biden all but vaporized his reputation as America’s “cool uncle” on Saturday when he said at a town hall that he still opposes legalizing marijuana on the federal level. “There’s not nearly been enough evidence that’s been acquired as to whether or not it is a gateway drug,” he said, as a decidedly harsh vibe fell over the crowd.
To some degree, Biden may have a point: The jury is out on whether marijuana can lead to using other drugs. (Although in 2014, the Times editorial board wrote that the gateway theory is “as fanciful as the ‘Reefer Madness’ images of murder, rape and suicide.”)
Nonetheless, Biden’s position on the issue is simply out of step with the rest of the country: After decades of opposition, Americans started to come around to marijuana legalization about 10 years ago, and now two-thirds of them support it.
The debate: For most voters — Republican and Democrat, black and white, coastal and heartland — the question is no longer whether marijuana should be legalized but what’s the fairest and safest way to do it.

Public health
Pro-legalizers often claim that marijuana is a far less dangerous and addictive drug than alcohol and tobacco — and that’s true. But that doesn’t mean it’s entirely without risk. There is evidence, for example, that marijuana may harm the brains of those under 25.
Alex Berenson, the author of “Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence,” argues in The Times that marijuana can even cause mental illness:
With large studies in peer-reviewed journals showing that marijuana increases the risk of psychosis and schizophrenia, the scientific literature around the drug is far more negative than it was 20 years ago. … Marijuana’s risks are different from opioids’, but they are no less real.
But: Ziva Cooper, who directs the Cannabis Research Initiative at the University of California, Los Angeles, and was involved in one of the studies Berenson cites, sharply disputed his claim. The study, she told Aaron E. Carroll of The Upshot, found evidence only of an association between schizophrenia and marijuana use, not a causal link.
German Lopez explains in Vox:
Marijuana may not cause psychosis; something else may cause both psychosis and pot use. Or the causation could go the other way: Psychotic disorders may lead to marijuana use, perhaps in an attempt to self-medicate. … The conclusion, if there is one: “This is a complex issue, one that certainly warrants further investigation.” In other words, we don’t know yet.

For many, the absence of definitive knowledge about all of marijuana’s health risks remains reason for caution. While marijuana may be safer than many legal drugs, Carroll writes, “We should be honest about what we do and don’t know. We need more research.”
Social justice
As Brent Staples, a member of the Times editorial board has written, the history of the federal ban on marijuana possession is rooted in racist prejudices about African-Americans and Mexicans. The burden of the ban’s enforcement, especially since the advent of the war on drugs in the 1970s, has in turn disproportionately fallen on people of color: While whites and blacks use marijuana at roughly equal rates, blacks are 3.7 times as likely to get arrested for possessing it. “The costs of this national obsession, in both money and time, are astonishing,” writes Jesse Wegman, a member of the Times editorial board.
Repaying those costs requires tackling two main challenges.
Criminal justice
In 2018, over 663,000 people were arrested on charges involving marijuana. What happens to them if it’s legalized? As Wegman writes, marijuana convictions “can have lifelong consequences for employment, education, immigration status and family life,” even when prison time isn’t part of the sentence.

That’s why the Los Angeles Times editorial board came out in favor of retroactively expunging or resentencing marijuana-related convictions. They wrote:
Marijuana is now legal under California law, but hundreds of thousands of Californians have criminal records for possessing or selling the drug when it was still banned. Those records can make it harder for people to get a job, obtain a loan, go to college, rent an apartment or otherwise become productive members of their community — even if their marijuana arrest happened decades ago. … It’s cruel to allow people to continue to suffer the penalties of a conviction for marijuana-related acts that the state no longer considers a crime.
What’s clear is that racial disparities in the criminal justice system won’t disappear on their own: After Colorado legalized marijuana, arrests went down for white kids, but shot up for black and Latino kids.Economic justice
As legalization moves forward in the states, most of the new market opportunities in the cannabis industry are being captured by white people: According to a survey by Marijuana Business Daily, only 19 percent of cannabis businesses in 2017 had minority founders or owners (African Americans accounted for just over 4 percent).
Summing up the historical irony, Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow,” said in 2014, “40 years of impoverished black kids getting prison time for selling weed, and their families and futures destroyed,” and “now, white men are planning to get rich doing precisely the same thing?”
The city of Oakland, Calif., aimed to correct for this inequity by requiring that half of medical-marijuana licenses go to people with a cannabis-related conviction and who fall below an income threshold. This idea of what might be called “affirmative action licensing” has drawn support from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Illinois legislature, as well as skepticism from right-wing and libertarian circles.
Yet others argue that it’s not enough to merely ensure that racial and class inequities don’t compound moving forward; legalization must also reduce them. Cory Booker, for example, along with Representatives Ro Khanna and Barbara Lee, proposed a federal legalization bill that would establish funds to “reinvest in the communities most impacted by the failed War on Drugs” by creating job training programs, re-entry services and community centers.
Whatever form they take, criminal and economic justice measures are already proving central to the fight over marijuana: It was precisely the latter’s absence from the legislative process that derailed New York’s legalization efforts this year.

The threat of Big Marijuana
Because of its legal status, the American marijuana market has always been a fairly decentralized one. But legalization, and the incorporation of the cannabis industry into the formal economy, threatens to change that. As Christopher Caldwell writes in The Times, well-financed weed businesses are already turning into big companies, transforming an “artisanal” trade into a corporate one and introducing new risks. He writes:
Corporations bring to the fore questions of size, power and accountability. Do we want multinational businesses using vast marketing budgets and gifted creative teams to teach our children that smoking a lot of pot is somehow sexy, or manly, or sophisticated? Do we want labs to come up with new flavors and varieties that turn pot-smoking into an adventure in connoisseurship and a way of demarcating oneself by class? Would we be content with a Microsoft of marijuana?
Along similar lines, back in 2013, the Times columnist Ross Douthat warned that what he might call vice, when allied with the profit motive, can have disastrous and unforeseen consequences:
Liberals especially, given their anxieties about inequality, should be attuned to the way that some liberties can grease the skids for exploitation, with a revenue-hungry state partnering with the private sector to profiteer off human weakness. This is one reason previous societies made distinctions between liberty and license that we have become loath to draw — because what seems like a harmless pleasure to the comfortable can devastate the poor and weak.

On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee reportedly will begin considering a bill that would legalize marijuana at the federal level, provide for expungement and resentencing, and fund reparative programs for the war on drugs.

Via @Debatable in the New York Times
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