Stella Tavilla

We can’t ignore the racist roots of cannabis criminalization any longer

April 26, 2023

Though much of the UVM student population is an enthusiastic supporter of a good blaze, American legislative policies and misconceptions surrounding weed need to grow past their racist and pseudoscientific histories. 

Cannabis was first cultivated in Central Asia for medicinal purposes as early as 500 B.C., according to a May 31, 2017 History article. In the early 1600s, the Virginia, Massachusetts and Connecticut colonies required farmers to grow hemp plants due to its fast-growing quality and usefulness in textile and rope-making purposes.

Despite its roots in medicinal usage, smoking cannabis to get high was practiced as early as 800 A.D. in the form of hashish, a purified form of weed smoked with a pipe, according to the History article. 

Cannabis for recreational purposes was introduced to the United States in the early 1900s and since then, weed has been under fire in the political world, from policies like the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 and current debates on whether it should be legalized, according to the History article. 

Vermonters are fortunate to bask in the glory of recreational cannabis, but the persistent misunderstanding, xenophobia and criminalization surrounding cannabis allows for blatant racism to hide behind the laws in place, as Black individuals make up most of the arrests due to cannabis possession despite being a minority population.  

This needs to change—our society can’t allow these narratives to persist. 

The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was the first law to nationally prohibit recreational use of cannabis and, in addition to the fines outlined for importing cannabis, scientific research of the drug also nearly disappeared at this time, according to Dec. 20, 2019 U.S. Customs and Border Protection article.

Stopping the research on such a drug allows for misinformation to spread and prevents facts backed by science from spreading to the general public. 

Harry Anslinger, commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics during and after the prohibition era, created a false narrative around weed due to the lack of science surrounding it, according to a March 31, 2021 Business Insider video.

He pushed the association between Mexican immigrants and the drug by emphasizing the Spanish sounding “marihuana” and fabricated an idea that weed caused Black people to forget their societal place, adding that jazz music was a creation of the people who were using cannabis, according to the video.  

These old beliefs persist with the anti-immigration—specifically anti-Mexican immigration—rhetoric that persists today in American society. 

The countless myths surrounding weed as a drug itself also permit demonization of the drug for recreational use, as the facts are often twisted.

Cannabis can lead to substance misuse and dependence, but the majority of people who use cannabis do not make the jump to more dangerous, or “harder” drugs, according to a Dec. 24, 2019 article from the National Institute of Health.

Cannabis has its most profound effects in the brain development of teenagers and young adults, but there are no effects on IQ if cannabis use begins in the adult years, according to an Aug. 27, 2012 study by Duke University

However, laws surrounding cannabis and alcohol prohibit teens from purchasing drugs. Due to the drug’s negative effects on young people, the legal age for cannabis use should not be under 21.

To say that weed is as dangerous as hard drugs is stretching the truth, as it was found not to be the explicit cause of intoxication deaths, according to a Jan. 12, 2017 book published by National Academies Press.

In fact, a pain-relieving feature was found in cannabis that could make it an alternative to opioids, according to a March 16, 2017 TIME Magazine article.

In 2014, there were 25% fewer prescription drug overdoses in states where medical cannabis was legal compared to states where it was not, according to the TIME Magazine article. 

With the increase in cannabis legalization, especially for medicinal purposes, state and local law enforcement agencies reported a decrease in arrests for cannabis possession from 226,000 in 2020 to 170,856 in 2021, according to an Oct. 17, 2022 U.S. News report. 

These arrests do not always lead to convictions or prison sentences, according to the U.S. News report. 

Despite the decrease in arrests, there are still racial disparities—Black people are 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested for cannabis possession, according to a 2020 ACLU report

Racism in law enforcement is widely known at this point, but it still remains persistent. 

To say that racial disparities and anti-immigration sentiment are limited to the attitudes and actions around cannabis would be ignoring the decades of systemic racism and xenophobia that exist in the United States.

As UVM students are often both weed-positive and socially aware, they likely know that we, as college students, can’t change everything that is wrong with cannabis criminalization. 

However, we can spread the correct information about the science of cannabis itself along with awareness about the current civil rights inequities that plague the law enforcement system. 

Awareness is the first step to change. 

Policies need to evolve, but this won’t happen overnight. First, the general public needs to comprehend that the science points to cannabis as relatively safe and that people of color are disproportionately criminalized. 

In addition to knowledge, however, there are ways to get involved with policies around the legalization of cannabis. 

The Marijuana Policy Project has countless petitions and updates surrounding the legalization of weed. 

Nationwide legalization of cannabis would result in less criminalization towards its users—if it is legal for recreational use, individuals of age would not be penalized for simply possessing it.

The ACLU offers frequent reports and ways to take action against racial disparities, human rights and other current issues.    

It is also important to make sure that if you use recreational cannabis, you are purchasing from someone who is licensed to sell. 

Unlicensed cannabis deals will not help the stigma around weed. 

Let’s make change around cannabis, making sure to correct misconceptions and show how dope the beloved weed truly is.   

Happy belated 4/20. 

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