MLK Day: Cannabis and Civil Rights

Happy MLK Day!

Time to catastrophize just a bit. Last year at this time, I kicked off this post by writing:

If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, he would almost certainly advocate to end the War on Drugs. Dr. King never spoke publicly about drugs or cannabis in particular: he was assassinated in 1968, two years before President Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). But it is well established that the War on Drugs was and is a war on minorities and people of color. It is the antithesis of equality and justice. And it is still going strong.

Things aren’t looking much better in 2023. Recently released FBI marijuana and drug crime data, which are confusing, indicate that cannabis is still the drug war’s primary driver. This is true even if simple possession arrests may be decreasing. Conservatively, local law enforcement officials clocked over 170,000 arrests for possession of cannabis in 2021 (the most recent year of published statistics). Texas is the nation’s leading culprit, followed by Tennessee and North Carolina.

These arrests are not for cartel activity, or any form of distribution or marijuana “trafficking”. Many, many people are trafficking the plant nonetheless. My law firm has worked with thousands of them over the years. We’ve helped them acquire state and local licenses, raise money, buy and lease real estate, pay each other, sue each other, etc. They’ve got cart blanche; and very few of them are minorities or people of color.

The catastrophizing part comes in when you start to understand that the tide won’t go out anytime soon. Many of the bigger states have made their moves as to cannabis, and Congress and the Biden administration, including through the President’s recent pardons, have badly missed the mark. As I wrote last year:

I am terribly, terribly disappointed in our leadership on this. Most of our leaders are cowards, starting at the very top. On the campaign trail, Joe Biden pledged to “decriminalize the use of cannabis and automatically expunge all prior cannabis use convictions.” That promise sits moldering right here on the “Black America” page of his website.

Friends, I just checked and it’s still up. You can read it– after clicking through a donations request.

In any case, the chances of Biden living up to his promises, or of cannabis reform happening in the new Congress, seem like slim to none. This means we should brace for a half million or so more arrests over the next few years. Many of these arrests will be of people of color, walking around with joints and such in places like Texas and Tennessee and North Carolina.

The cognitive dissonance will continue to expand. States like New York and New Jersey, once marquee prosecutors of the drug war, have rolled out cannabis decriminalization and social equity programs that should put the Western states to shame. I doubt anyone will crack the social equity code on cannabis commerce anytime soon, but these overtures stand in stark relief to what we will continue to see in the backwaters. All the while, legal sales of cannabis will continue to march toward $80 billion in 2030.

I don’t mean to be all doom and gloom. I do mean to remember, though, that drug policy reform is a civil rights and social justice issue. Dr. King would have been all over this one.

The year is 2023 and it’s time to end the drug war, starting with cannabis.