MLK Day: Cannabis and Civil Rights


Happy MLK Day!

If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, he would almost certainly advocate ending 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) into law. But it is common knowledge 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’s still going strong.

When I first wrote an MLK Day blog post five years ago, FBI data suggested that “marijuana arrests [were] increasingly, even as more and more states legalize[d] Possession and sale of facility.” That year, there were 663,367 marijuana-related arrests. In 2019, the number dropped to 545,601. In 2020, the number dropped significantly to 350,150 (probably accelerated by COVID). Still, this unacceptable number means that cannabis is arrested every 90 seconds in the United States. Most of these arrests relate to simple possessions, and a majority are aimed at people of color.

I am terribly, terribly disappointed in our leadership in this matter. Most of our leaders are cowards and start at the top. During the campaign, Joe Biden pledged to “decriminalize cannabis use and automatically overturn all previous cannabis use convictions.” That promise rots right here on the Black America page of his website. Biden has done nothing. In the first year of his presidency, probably 300,000 (or more) Americans were arrested and convicted for simple possession of marijuana. Penalties range from minor offenses to life imprisonment without parole in extreme cases.

We gave Joe Biden a “D” back in 2019 when we polled presidential candidates on cannabis. He was on the wrong side of the drug war for decades; and now the President is dragging his feet. We ranked VP Kamala Harris a little higher and gave her a “B”. In hindsight, that seems to have been a mistake. Since ascending to the White House, she has also disappointed.

Four years ago this week I followed Harris pretty hard on this blog. I criticized her position on cannabis as “mostly just talk”, stating:

There are several reasons Ms. Harris has received significant criticism compared to other officials for her half-hearted measures regarding cannabis: 1) she hails from California, the first state with a medical cannabis program and the world’s largest cannabis economy; 2) she comes from the executive branch, having served as Attorney General of California; 3) she is a prominent national politician who is often featured as the 2020 presidential nominee; and 4) she is constant talk about the failed War on Drugs. In fact, she talks about it pretty much every day.

But it’s all talk. As California Attorney General, Ms. Harris did little to further her state’s interest in cannabis. When asked about her opinion on the legalization of adult-use cannabis in 2014, she responded with derisive laughter. As a U.S. Senator, she has failed to sponsor or even co-sign any bills to implement or suspend marijuana (and there are some good ones). Aside from a lot of talking, Harris’s one big move was putting together a petition for nationwide decriminalization of marijuana (but not overhauling the CSA). My eight year old niece could do that.

When it became politically convenient for Harris to opt for marijuana reform, she did so, including through her support of the MORE Act, before leaving the Senate. But now Harris is the vice president, with the ability to represent and shape drug policy like never before. It was crickets. In December, even some Republicans slammed Biden and Harris for “persistent silence” on cannabis policies. It is not difficult to say that Dr. King would have agreed.

Outside the White House, other federal officials continue to fight for cannabis and drug policy reform. Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker sent a firm letter to the Attorney General in October, asking that the Justice Department begin the marijuana debt relief process. The House Judiciary Committee cleared the MORE bill just weeks earlier. Career advocates from Bernie Sanders to Earl Blumenauer continue to press relentlessly. We even proposed Republican legislation here. But ultimately, Biden and Harris hold the keys.

It’s not all terrible news, I suppose. Aside from arrests trending downward, states continue to decriminalize marijuana; to legalize and license the facility; and erasing beliefs in fits and beginnings. Many local actors are doing what they can. But it’s not enough. As we wrote last year, cannabis regulation — and the composition, direction, and dynamics of the industry as a whole — is far from where it needs to be when it comes to civil rights issues.

Change must be both top-down and bottom-up. dr King wrote that we have a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. We also have a moral responsibility to change them.

Drug policy reform is above all a matter of civil rights and social justice. All our readers should remember that today.