Decriminalizing Marijuana

Rina Cakrani, Opinion Columnist

The aggressive enforcement of marijuana possession laws needlessly places hundreds of thousands of people into the criminal justice system and wastes billions of taxpayers’ dollars. The enforcement of these laws is also carried out with tremendous racial bias and active racial profiling by law enforcement. Despite having been a priority for police departments nationwide for the last 30 years, the war on marijuana has failed to reduce marijuana use and availability and has wasted resources that could be better invested in our communities, only because of the intended racist policing of the minority communities. Higher arrest and incarceration rates for these communities are not reflective of increased prevalence of marijuana use; instead, they are indicative of the fact that law enforcement focuses on areas where there are communities of color. This results in incarceration rates being higher for these communities and leads to consequences they suffer once they are part of the criminal justice system, consequences that are unfair and have a tremendous effect on the rest of their lives.

Illustration by Elena Kaminskaia

Disparities in arrest and incarceration rates are seen for both drug possession law violations as well as low-level sales. Those selling small amounts of drugs to support their own families, when there are no financial resources or employment opportunities available to them, may go to jail for decades. This unequal law enforcement approach ignores the many issues that underfunded communities of color face and the troubles they face when confronted with a system that is not concerned with providing them resources. If we want to keep communities — including people who use drugs — safe, we need to focus less on criminalization and more on finding non-criminalizing ways to address issues within communities.

We need to recognize that discriminatory policies have unjustly criminalized communities of color and then advance policies to repair those harms. Exposing and combating the racism of the drug war is essential in order to dismantle the system. Drug decriminalization will ensure the removal of criminal penalties for drug use and low-level drug sales. While fighting for decriminalization of drug use and possession, changes must happen in order to fight the decriminalization of black and brown people who have already gotten caught up in the system and have received long and unfair sentences for marijuana charges. This entails supporting policies that actively reduce drug sentences for those currently in prison, or deleting old criminal records for those who have already been released, so that it is easier for them to reintegrate into society and find a job.