The House of Representatives Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security held a hearing last week entitled “Marijuana Laws in America: Racial Justice and the Need for Reform.” Shockingly, the organizers chose to ignore science in favor of marijuana businesses, whose only goal is to rake in profits by selling today’s extremely potent form of marijuana.
It was like we were transported to a tobacco hearing in 1950, when Big Tobacco execs ruled.
Before we learn more about marijuana’s effects, we need to slow this train down. Of course, if you’re in the pot business, your job is to do the opposite.
The pro-pot arguments are familiar: commercial pot will be a boon for social justice by finally solving issues of mass incarceration.
In reality, the opposite is true: prison populations are rising or stable in “legal” pot states, arrest rates are often higher now than prior to legalization, and big business is profiting off pot candies, high THC waxes, and other products at the expense of public health.
First off, we must acknowledge marijuana-related African American arrest rates in states like Colorado are nearly twice that of whites.
Furthermore, data find legalization has increased the criminalization of minority youth. The average number of marijuana-related arrests among Hispanic juveniles in Colorado increased 7.3 percent and the average number of marijuana-related arrests among African-American juveniles increased 5.9 percent. Additionally, drug suspension rates in Colorado schools with 76 percent or more students of color are over two times higher compared to Colorado schools with fewer than 25 percent students of color. In Washington, D.C. juvenile marijuana-related arrests increased 114 percent between the three years before and after marijuana legalization.
Arrests and disparities continue. But what about the other promises of social justice, reinvesting the profits of the marijuana industry into minority communities?
Nothing more than a pipe dream.
In Los Angeles, the overwhelming majority of dispensaries have opened in predominately African-American communities. In Denver, an overlay of socioeconomic data shows the same: pot shops concentrated in disadvantaged communities. And while these marijuana stores are concentrated in these neighborhoods, these stores rarely employ members of the community or improve economic opportunities for the communities they target. In fact, nationally, less than 1 percent of all pot shops are owned by minorities.
Even Malik Burnett, advocate-turned-businessman, points out that the individuals beginning to turn vast profits are not the ones who have suffered.
Most importantly, no one at the hearing was available to present members of the committee with the facts on marijuana’s harms to health. If members had called any major medical association to testify, they would have heard how pot commercialization is not in the public’s interest.
Indeed, the health risks of marijuana are lost today amid confusing and misleading advertisements that target communities that lack educational resources. Today’s high-potency marijuana is addictive, and linked with serious mental health illnesses such as psychosis, and lowers educational outcomes for those who use it heavily. These lower-income communities face a new threat to their health with inadequate resources to combat the effects.
Instead, the head of a group, whose board includes Big Pot business interests,
asserted marijuana can be an effective substitute for opioids, despite conflicting data. New research has confirmed previous work and found marijuana is not an effective substitute for opioids. Additionally, data show that marijuana users are more likely to abuse prescription opioids and more likely to go on to abuse harder substances.
We can all agree we shouldn’t put people in prison for pot — so if neither incarceration nor legalization makes sense, what then? There is a smarter approach to marijuana reform that could attract a bipartisan consensus: smart decriminalization. Such a policy can achieve real steps towards social justice, reduce drug use, and connect those who are suffering from addiction with recovery resources. Smart policies like these do not prop up a profit-hungry industry whose main goal is to increase the use of their products by increasing the potency, making new products such as gummies, candies, and ice creams, and aggressively marketing these products to young people.
The full legalization of marijuana at the federal level will create Big Tobacco 2.0 and bring with it far worse social justice harms and impacts to disadvantaged communities. Let’s press pause. A policy of legal pot is too far, too fast.
Kevin Sabet, Ph.D., is a former senior drug policy advisor to the Obama Administration and serves as president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana. Will Jones is the founder of Two is Enough, a campaign opposed to marijuana legalization in the District of Columbia, and serves as the Community Outreach Associate for Smart Approaches to Marijuana.