Columns, Opinion

Cannabis Culture: Social equity programs are rectifying the war on drugs

Marijuana has been prohibited in the U.S. federally since 1937. However, various states have passed legislation in the past two decades legalizing marijuana for both medical and recreational uses. 

The discussion surrounding federal legalization of marijuana with the upcoming 2020 presidential election may seem like a good thing for cannabis advocates across the country and it is definitely a step in the right direction for the future of cannabis. 

But many candidates have failed to address the most important issue of federal legalization — the horrific impact caused by the harsh policies of the war on drugs. 

The U.S. government has been passing legislation prohibiting drugs since the late 1800s. In 1870, the U.S. passed laws against opium and in the 1900s the government passed restrictive laws on both marijuana and cocaine. But the official war on drugs began in 1971 when President Richard Nixon decided that the U.S. needed stronger policies and enforcement against drug use across the country.

Drug enforcement policies can generally be perceived as a step taken to protect citizens, but the reality of the war on drugs has been quite insidious. The war on drugs mainly consisted of harsher mandatory sentencing, an increase in drug enforcement manpower and the distribution of many no-knock warrants. 

The cultural changes spreading across the country in the 1970s provided Nixon with an opportunity: by associating black communities and hippies with the use of drugs like marijuana and heroin, Nixon was able to turn public opinion against these communities. The war on drugs went on to wreak havoc on communities across the country.

Harsher sentences led to families losing brothers, sons and fathers. Despite Nixon leaving office, the war on drugs burned on with the “Just Say No” slogan of Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug campaign, discouraging the voluntary use of any drugs.

The war on drugs has cost the federal government more than $47 billion per year, has disproportionately impacted black and Latino communities in the U.S. and has been regarded as a massive detriment to the development and socioeconomic advancement of minority communities across the country. 

With federal legalization on the horizon, something must be done to rectify the damage done by the war on drugs. A key step towards reversing this damage is the use of economic empowerment and social equity programs in communities that have legalized marijuana. The purpose of these programs is to allow state legislators to level the playing field for minorities in a recently legalized market. 

Legislators should recognize the damage done by the war on drugs and remember the people most impacted when considering the future of cannabis in their state. 

Many cities and states have implemented such programs in their legalization process; Massachusetts has developed its own set of social equity programs to assist entrepreneurs and communities that were ravaged by archaic drug enforcement laws. 

In addition, many cities across California, including San Francisco and Los Angeles, have implemented programs to remove barriers of entry to the legal cannabis industry. 

Similar programs not only look toward the future of the newly legal cannabis industry, but also consider that some citizens may carry criminal records as a result of decades-old marijuana charges. Denver has implemented a process for its citizens to get their criminal records sealed if their record contains marijuana charges. 

The legalization of marijuana has a bright future in America, but we cannot forget the dark past it has had in this country. More importantly, we cannot forget the Americans impacted by the archaic drug enforcement while other Americans are getting rich off of the cannabis industry. 

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