Tuesday was April 20, or 4/20, so here’s a friendly reminder in light of the holiday; Barack Obama smoked marijuana, and he isn’t a degenerate, he was the 44th president of the United States. Marijuana has been legalized in 16 states as well as Washington, D.C., and there are numerous studies showing that marijuana is, at the very least, just as safe as alcohol.
So why are over 40,000 Americans still incarcerated for marijuana-related charges?
One answer to that question is fairly simple: decriminalizing marijuana nationwide would take away one “legal” way our country disproportionately incarcerates Black people and people of color. According to a 2020 Forbes article, Black people are 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people. While marijuana use becomes more mainstream and geared towards white, middle and upper-income consumers in some states it remains a legal justification for racial injustice.
Here are a few quick facts to compare alcohol and marijuana: the risk of death from marijuana use is about 114 times lower than that of alcohol use, it’s less addictive than alcohol or any other drug, and it’s rarely associated with emergency room visits compared to the 21% of all injuries and 36% of hospitalized assaults that are attributed to alcohol use. If alcohol is not only legal but widely normalized, then possession of marijuana shouldn’t be a ticket to prison.
Yet somehow, 43% of all drug arrests in 2018 were for marijuana — and of that 43%, 89.6% were for possession alone. That is a massive amount of marijuana arrests, all simply for having a drug that, on paper, poses less of a danger to the consumer and others than alcohol.
Our justice system dehumanizes those who are arrested for these petty charges, and so it is important that we make a personal choice to see incarcerated individuals as people. They’re not just a statistic, they’re people with lives and families, jobs and futures. With a drug arrest on your record, and potential time in prison, moving forward and living life without being pegged as a criminal isn’t an easy accomplishment. Rather, it’s a set-up for failure.
According to Forbes, the rate of unemployment among those with criminal records was a whopping 30% before the pandemic. That figure includes anyone with a drug-related criminal record. To put it plainly, you can be arrested for simply having marijuana in your possession in a state where it’s not recreationally legal and your job prospects could be permanently impacted as a result. That’s exactly what will likely happen to many of those 40,000 people who are currently in jail for a substance you can buy at an apothecary in Waterville, Maine.
Let’s remember that, as the comedian John Mulaney said, marijuana has always been practically legal for white people.
“We don’t go to jail for marijuana, you silly billy,” Mulaney said in his special, “The Comeback Kid,” the “we” being, of course, white people. It’s a sad truth behind a thin veil of humor. It’s time to stop putting people of color in jail for a drug that just about any study shows is not any more dangerous to you, others or society than alcohol is. Let’s get those 40,000 people out, let’s stop using marijuana as a tool to put people of color behind bars, and let’s decriminalize it everywhere.