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Is marijuana legislation a social justice issue?

Most arguments advocating for the federal legalization of marijuana focus on profits, employment opportunities, medical issues or tax revenue. In other words, it is all about the money, y’all.

On the other hand, civil rights groups and community activists are becoming the strongest advocates of legalization. One of the hottest issues of contention is that the criminal justice is in dire need of reform. Note, for instance, that most drug crimes are nonviolent, and the majority of people imprisoned for drug violations are disproportionately people of color—Black or Latino—and the poor.

Moreover, marijuana legislation can do much to alleviate poverty, by allowing individuals to open small, legal marijuana dispensaries that allows lower income citizens to become small business owners. Some states are taking proactive steps in that direction. In California, a recent initiative allows individuals with nonviolent drug convictions a chance to acquire marihuana licenses. It has also set aside an annual allocation of $10 million for social services such as job placement and addiction treatment. What these measures show is that not only most voters in many states support the legalization of marijuana, but they also support social justice measures.

This trend is not limited to blue states, even though that is a common misconception. The Republican party won the presidential elections by over 56% of the vote in the state of Missouri; however, Missouri has 4 marijuana legalization initiatives up for vote this fall. One of the measures is for recreational use and the other three, for medical use. In fact, one of the most active advocacy groups in Missouri proposes that inmates sentenced for nonviolent marijuana violations be released within 30 days and have their records expunged. Other red states, such as North Dakota, have similar ballot measures in the works.

Meanwhile, citizens in some blue states, such as New York and New Jersey, have formed strong coalitions across the board of civil society and clergy, categorizing marijuana legislation as a social justice matter, a position that receives the full support of New Jersey’s Democrat Governor Phil Murphy. New Jersey residents have expressed strong support for reforming laws that lead to incarceration for nonviolent marijuana related violations, expunging criminal records, and allowing former offenders to participate in the legal marijuana industry.

Some civil rights organizations, such as the NAACP, take it a step further: they do not support marijuana legislation that does not engage in measures to repair the harm done by unjust drug laws to poor communities of color. In fact, according to the Pew Report, close to two thirds of people of color support marijuana legislation, a much higher number than among white people. Given the realities of how marijuana laws work, this is hardly surprising.

It is important to note, however, that significant numbers of Latino and African American people remain opposed to marijuana legislation, mostly because the perception they have about it is based on negative information. In other words, much work remains to be done in order to help people think about marihuana differently.

Source: Quinton, Sophie (July 2018). “Marijuana Bulls Increasingly Focus on Social Justice”. Stateline. Pew Trust.

About the Author:

Trudy Mercadal, Ph.D

New Orleans born with a Latina background, I am a writer, social historian & cultural studies researcher with a doctorate in Comparative Studies. My focus on community and popular culture. Main interests are the ways in which people express identity through arts—such as music, graffiti, and magazines—and their consuming practices, that is, the what (and how) they buy, ingest, eat, and wear. In my personal life, I am a dedicated urban mini-farmer and, also, a certified cheese maker who makes a truly kick-ass grilled cheese sandwich.

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