You may be curious as to how one of the United States’ founding fathers is connected to the legalization of marijuana in California. Allow me to explain.
Thomas Jefferson, an avid states’ rights advocate, believed that states should have the right to control legislation within their borders. Right now, cannabis is recognized as a Schedule One drug (meaning that it has no accepted medical use and has a high potential for abuse) by the federal government, while being legalized on the state level for medical use in 23 states. This represents a clear tension between state and federal policy, and it is safe to assume which side Thomas would choose.
This issue first came to my attention in January 2018 when cannabis was first legalized for recreational use in California. I was immediately struck by the social injustices faced by cannabis business owners. The federal government frequently raids dispensaries, collecting revenue and marijuana as evidence of illegal activity, despite its legalization under California State law. This “evidence” is rarely returned or compensated for, leading to substantial financial losses for these entrepreneurs. My father, who works in the financial sector, talked with me about the ways in which the federal government prohibits banks from doing business with the cannabis industry. I was interested in the moral and financial aspects of this cutting edge issue, and decided to delve deeper.
Why is Weed Illegal?
Conflicts over marijuana in the United States began in the early 1900’s, during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). As a result of this revolution, many Mexicans immigrated to the southern and western United States, bringing with them their language and culture. Mexicans, who knew cannabis as “marijuana,” brought with them a new form of consumption: smoking. While cannabis was already being used in many American households as an ingredient in tinctures and other medicinal recipes, Americans were unfamiliar with this “new” name (marijuana) and usage. State legislatures and media, anxious to limit the influx of all these new immigrants, preyed upon American citizens’ fears to spread claims about “disruptive Mexicans” with their strange and unhealthy practices, such as the use of marijuana. To quote Dr. Malik Burnett, a marijuana law and policy expert, “The demonization of the cannabis plant was an extension of the demonization of the Mexican immigrants”(Burnett). State legislature and American media continued to spread these claims until 1937 when the Marijuana Tax Act passed (drafted by Harry Anslinger and proposed to the 75th congress by North Carolina representative, Robert Doughton). This law prohibited the use and sale of marijuana.
Under the Nixon administration, the Marijuana Tax Act morphed into the Controlled Substances Act. This legislation made marijuana the equivalent of heroin in the eyes of the law. However, this act wasn’t passed for public safety; Richard Nixon passed this law to delegitimize the “hippie” liberal opposition to the war in Vietnam. One of Nixon’s advisors, John Elrlichman, said in an interview with CNN that, “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did”(Elrlichman). This quote clearly shows that the prohibition of cannabis was for political purposes and not for the good of the people.
Why is this still a Problem?
Sadly, discrimination against people of color through “the war on drugs” did not end with the Nixon administration, and is still a major issue today. In a document published by the Drug Policy Alliance, “people of color experience discrimination at every stage of the judicial system and are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, convicted, harshly sentenced and saddled with a lifelong criminal record. This is particularly the case for drug law violations. Black people comprise 13 percent of the U.S. population, and are consistently documented by the U.S. government to use drugs at similar rates to people of other races.But Black people comprise 29 percent of those arrested for drug law violations,and nearly 40 percent of those incarcerated in state or federal prison for drug law violations” (DPA).
Businesses are also suffering from the federal ban on cannabis. Legal marijuana dispensaries are frequently raided by the DEA. If you click the image below, you can watch the DEA raid a family-owned medical marijuana business. These DEA agents are outfitted in full tactical gear and treat employees like criminals, cuffing them, and seizing all of the cash that was stored in the dispensary safe. In the particular instance seen in the video below, Forbes reports that the DEA “[seized] more than $100,000 from their personal savings and checking accounts” (Sibilla), including the family’s college savings. Forbes goes on to describe how “neither James, his wife nor their two daughters have been charged with any crime. Nor have any of Med-West’s employees been indicted in connection to the raid (the employees who were arrested were ultimately released without any charges). Yet San Diego law enforcement has refused to return the cash it seized” (Sibilla).
What is a Solution?
Ways to combat this issue:
- Amend the Controlled Substances Act so that it does not include marijuana
- Remove cannabis from the Schedule One drug list
- Make cannabis the equivalent of alcohol in the eyes of the law
By accomplishing these goals, the government would be able to heavily tax and regulate the cultivation and distribution of cannabis. This would benefit the American economy immensely. An article published by American Banker featured a bar graph that represents the economic impact of legalization on states in which cannabis is legal.
This influx of entrepreneurs could also lead to greater awareness and reform of a range of regulations experienced regularly by small business owners, including: land use restrictions, water restrictions, labor topics (minimum wage, agricultural working conditions, etc), consumer topics such as advertising and product safety, and a range of other topics that affect business owners today.
What can we do?
After learning that cannabis was made illegal in order to promote racism towards Mexicans and to justify the conflict in Vietnam, you may be wondering why these racist, outdated laws are still in place. You may also be wondering what you can do to help this cause and legalize medical cannabis. The first step in ending this prohibition on marijuana is education. Learn as much as you can about the history of this issue, and help educate those around you. In addition to this, many local governments across America are currently in the process of deciding how to regulate this brand-new industry. By getting involved, you can help shape the future of cannabis in the United States.
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Burnett, Malik and Amanda Reiman,
“How Did Marijuana Become Illegal in the First Place?” Drug Policy . Org, 8 Oct. 2014
Drug Policy Alliance,
“The Drug War, Mass Incarceration and Race” Drug Policy . org Jan. 2018
Kevin Wack (American Banker Journalist)
“Big banks worked with pot industry, despite denials, records show” American Banker. Com, January 11, 2017
Lee, Martin A. “Marijuana for the Masses.” Project CBD: Medical Marijuana & Cannabinoid Science,
Project CBD, 27 June 2017, www.projectcbd.org/cannabis-culture-history/marijuana-masses-medical-cannabis-history-in-the-60s
LoBianco, Tom. “Report: Nixon’s War on Drugs Targeted Black People.” CNN, Cable News Network,
Sibilla, Nick. “Cops Raid Medical Marijuana Business, Seize Over $100,000, Including Teenage Girls’ College
Savings.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 3 Nov. 2016, www.forbes.com/sites/instituteforjustice/2016/11/02/cops-raid-medical-marijuana-business-seize-over-100000-including-teenage-girls-college-savings/