On March 31, New York became the 15th state to legalize the use of recreational marijuana. This new legislation comes as part of a growing national trend toward legalization and decriminalization of drugs. For many people, the news of legalization implies a positive shift toward freedom for personal, recreational use. While this cultural and political change is worth celebrating, it is important to recognize the implications of these changes on the racial inequities that have long plagued the economic and legal systems of marijuana usage.
Many New York lawmakers, particularly nonwhite Democrats, advocated for nuanced legislation that would address some of the racial inequities of marijuana legality. Although Gov. Cuomo initially pushed back on these policy proposals, it was eventually decided that 40% of tax revenue from cannabis will be redirected to Black and Latino communities, which are disproportionately affected by marijuana drug charges. Additionally, anyone who has previously been convicted of marijuana-related offenses that are no longer criminalized will have their records expunged.
These recent legislative acts highlight the racial inequities embedded in the cannabis industry, reflected throughout other states and communities in the nation.
Black and Latino individuals comprise 31% of the U.S. population, but account for nearly 50% of all marijuana-related arrests. However, even as owning and using cannabis is becoming more widely accepted and formally legalized, those who profit off this sociopolitical shift in attitude toward weed are overwhelmingly wealthy and white; between 80% and 90% of the legal cannabis industry is run by white business owners.
The industry in Massachusetts is hardly better off in comparison to the national average. Massachusetts voted to legalize medical marijuana in 2012 and recreational cannabis in 2016, and the state made headlines for opening the first recreational marijuana stores on the East Coast in 2018. Over the past two years, the gross sales of cannabis in the state have surpassed $1 billion. However, data shows that about 73% of workers in the Massachusetts cannabis industry are white. Although the state provides equity programs for people from communities disproportionately criminalized for marijuana, as of 2019 only two out of 105 provisional and 79 final licenses were issued to applicants from these programs.
As states shift toward the legalization of marijuana and other drugs, legislation should follow the example of New York and retroactively apply legality to expunge the records of those who have been convicted for crimes that are no longer illegal. Additionally, some portion of the revenue from taxes on cannabis should be designated to funding programs that work to dismantle the systems of racial injustice in drug criminalization.
In addition to the legislation, businesses and individual consumers should become informed about the power structures implicated in their purchase of recreational and medical cannabis. Legislation and the demographic control of the cannabis market both influence the industry and its impacts on society. If cannabis users consciously choose to buy from dispensaries that are not complicit in upholding the dominance of large, white-owned cannabis chains, they will help to disrupt the racial inequities in the market. Additionally, consumers can contribute to political and social efforts to encourage lawmakers to push for legislation that facilitates a more equitable industry.
It is vital to bring these conversations to college campuses, where marijuana use is common; a 2020 report from the National College Health Assessment showed that 35.9% of college students have used cannabis for nonmedical purposes. Especially for a school like Tufts that has a predominantly white student body, it is imperative that students who use cannabis engage as conscious consumers. It is the responsibility of students — especially white students — on campus to contend with the hypocrisy and privilege of participating in a system that systematically benefits wealthy white business owners at the expense of communities of color. In order to combat these inequities, students should contribute to efforts to reform the United States’ justice, legal and economic systems to reflect the demographics of consumers and rectify racial injustices.