Between 2001 and 2010, U.S. law enforcement made over 7 million arrests for marijuana possession. In that time, marijuana possession arrests made up 46% of all drug arrests. According to a recent ACLU report, racial disparity in marijuana possession arrests is egregious and occurs all throughout the country. Despite the fact that whites use marijuana as frequently as blacks, blacks are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, leading to devastating consequences in low-income minorities communities.
Luckily, the nationwide decriminalization of marijuana is almost here. In October, Maryland will be the seventeenth state to decriminalize the possession of marijuana. It’s not unreasonable to believe that the nationwide legalization, commercial production, and regulation of marijuana will soon follow. A majority of Americans support legalization, the New York Times recently came out in full support of federal legalization, and the two states that have already legalized marijuana, Colorado and Washington, have only reported positive results.
With the dawn of the commercial production of legal pot, it is important to keep in mind those who the drug war has affected most, poor minorities. Yes, marijuana legalization would generate millions in tax revenue and could provide a substantial boost to the economy. However, we should be wary of regulations surrounding the legalized commercial production of weed that protect big business or state interests to the detriment of poor minorities. Here are three potentially harmful regulations:
1. Criminal Background Checks and Occupational Licensing
In Colorado and Washington, marijuana businesses have been subject to fairly strict licensing laws. The Colorado Department of Revenue has an entire Marijuana Enforcement Division to review marijuana business and professional license applications. To obtain an occupational license in Colorado, owners must undergo a full criminal background check as licensees may not have any Controlled Substance Felony Convictions that have not been fully discharged for five years prior to applying. Given the well-documented disproportionate enforcement of drug policy on minorities, such licensing requirements could easily and unfairly skew the new legal marijuana market in favor of whites.
2. The Overbearing Costs of Marijuana Retail Licenses and Taxation
Legalization proponents have consistently argued that states should legalize in order to tax marijuana businesses and collect revenue from licensing fees. The states that have legalized marijuana have taken this mantra to heart. Colorado made nearly $6 million in revenue from marijuana dispensaries just this past month. One Colorado marijuana business owner reported that permit and licensing fees cost him $20,000 just in one year. While poor minorities were able to participate in the illegal marijuana economy, they will not be able to participate in the legal drug economy if the state continues to charge such enormous fees and taxes.
3. Zealously Persecuting Black Market Distribution
As it stands now, marijuana legalization has created a perfect storm to continue to imprison poor minorities for nonviolent weed offenses. Poor minorities, who are more likely to have felony drug charges, are largely unable to participate in the legal marijuana market. If they do have a clean criminal history, they are still priced out of the market by bigger businesses who can afford outrageously high state taxes and fees upfront. While dispensaries are charging high premiums to cover their overhead, a black market for cheap marijuana will emerge in poor communities. But now, laws intended to protect legal marijuana business interests will be used to persecute those participating in the black market, as decriminalization doesn’t yet protect distributors or dealers.
Going forward with marijuana legalization, state policy makers should remember who marijuana prohibition hurts the most and regulate according to the interests of the community as a whole, not according to the state budget. Advocates of legalization should also refocus their core principles: we want to end prohibition because it is harmful and unnecessary, not because it will make state governments richer.