by Angela Vega
Seven years after California first rejected an initiative in favor of the recreational use of the highly popularized drug, marijuana, voters have opted to make the famous plant readily available to anyone over the age 21, regardless of medical need or not.
On November 9, 2016, Proposition 64, also known as the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA), legalized the possession and personal use cultivation of marijuana by adults 21 years old and over, making last week’s 4/20 celebration California’s first legal celebration of the plant.
Marijuana activists like Jodie Emery have dedicated much of their work to stress the importance of the legalization of cannabis and mark this year’s 4/20 celebration a historical one and a sign for continuous activism from here on out.
But cannabis has long been the target of criminalization in America, especially for marginalized America. Since the war on drugs in the 1980’s under President Reagan, there has been a 1,000 percent increase as of 2014 of incarceration for drug crimes according to the Sentencing Project.
In fact, in 2013, about 58 percent of all sentenced inmates were Black or Hispanic, despite making up about only 30 percent of the total population, according to a study done by the US Department of Justice.
This war on drugs has significantly and disproportionately impacted people of color, more specifically those who happen to be Black or Latino. However, knowing that white activists are allowed to celebrate and relish in the legalization of a drug that has been systematically and historically demonized for its association with people of color and marginalized communities leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Young black and brown men spend the rest of their lifetime in jail cells for the possession of drugs, while the rest of the world is comforted with the protection of the law, as well as their skin tone.
“Despite comparable rates of drug use and sales, communities of color and other marginalized groups have been the principal targets of drug law enforcement and make up the vast majority of people who have been incarcerated or otherwise had their lives torn apart by the drug war,” the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) stated.
In a 2014 article about how the war on drugs has damaged black social mobility, writer Jonathan Rothwell found that white people are more likely than black people to sell drugs and about as likely to use them. But despite this, black people are 3.6 times more likely than white people to be arrested for selling drugs and 2.5 times more for drug possession.
While it goes without saying that the use of drugs over time is an urgent issue whether it is prevalent in one community more than another, the 4/20 celebration is one of privilege.
“People of color experience discrimination at every stage of the judicial system and are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, convicted, harshly sentenced and saddled with a lifelong criminal record. This is particularly the case for drug law violations,” the DPA stated.
But it is not enough to acknowledge this privilege. We should not simply accept this as a misfortune in the system and continue support for a law that clearly benefits one group over another. Action and mobilization against a racist system is necessary. Celebrating a “victory” but ignoring its history and implications is not a sign of progress, whether Californians believes it or not.