ANALYSIS: The marijuana fight isn’t over – and here’s why

April 20 – better known as “4/20” – has been a day long celebrated by stoners – a magical day where some say Snoop Dogg himself will come down the chimney if left cookies at night. Though known as mostly a time for festivity, 4/20 is also a good day to reflect upon the issues surrounding the illegalization of marijuana (and the resulting civil rights problems) that still plague the country today. 

“People have no rights at all to use marijuana,” said Dale Gieringer, Director of California NORML, a national nonprofit organization working to legalize marijuana and advocate for marijuana consumers across the country. He pointed out that “anyone, anywhere” can be discriminated against for using marijuana.

According to Gieringer, this especially impacts immigrants, for both people trying to enter the country and earn citizenship status. Noncitizens with marijuana convictions can’t enter the country under normal circumstances.

A 2015 report from Humans Right Watch found that between 2007 and 2012, over 34,000 noncitizens were deported with marijuana possession being their most serious offense. According to the report, though possession of marijuana under 30 grams is the only drug-related offense people can’t be deported for, this is only applicable to a single offense and defendants are still held without bond while they fight their case and receive what’s called “cancellation of removal” to stay in the U.S. 

According to reporting by Time, every state as well as Washington D.C. has “canceled or scaled back” all in-person hearings (including those with marijuana cases) to prevent the spread of COVID-19, creating a backlog of cases. American Immigration Council reported similar slow downs in United States Citizen and Immigration Services. The result is people stuck in jail for long periods of time, brewing a civil rights crisis across the country. 

Marijuana illegalization also affects those who rely on social welfare programs.

“You can’t claim any disability if you have medical use,” Gieringer said. “It’s not protected under HIPAA laws.” 

These current federal and state laws impact people when it comes to their privacy and even employment. Other prescription drugs including fentanyl, which killed over 1,500 people in California in 2019 alone, have federal protections that don’t apply to marijuana. 

Due to current federal laws, marijuana convictions can also impact one’s eligibility for public housing, federal student loans and losing out on employment and housing opportunities. Marijuana use can also jeopardize one’s eligibility for unemployment benefits or child custody even in states where marijuana is legal. Users risk the loss of healthcare treatment covered by OSHA in the case of workplace accidents

At its roots, marijuana illegalization is a civil rights issue

Nationwide, more than six million Americans were arrested for marijuana between 2010 and 2018. Despite an overall decrease in arrests since 2010, nationwide, black people are still 3.64 times more likely to get arrested for marijauna possession than white people, according to a 2020 American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report. This is despite the fact white and black people use marijuana at similar rates

This disparity is a little lower in states where marijuana is illegal, with black people 1.7 times more likely to get arrested, but this is still a concerning pattern. 

According to the ACLU report, marijuana offenses made up over 40% of all drug arrests nationwide. This amount of arrests (almost 700,000 – which is nearly 100,000 more marijauna arrests than in 2015) was more than every arrest for a violent crime combined. Nine out of 10 of all drug arrests were for possession. 

Why is marijuana federally illegal in the first place? It causes far less deaths than drugs that can be legally prescribed by doctors, such as fentanyl and other prescription opioids. It doesn’t cause potentially fatal seizures from withdrawals, like benzodiazepines. It’s not known to cause various types of cancer like cigarettes and other tobacco products. It doesn’t cause the same problems with erratic behavior, chronic addiction, liver damage, heart issues and other detrimental or even fatal health effects that alcohol has been proven to cause.

Yet, all those drugs are legal to various degrees while marijuana remains Schedule I, the strictly regulated category of drugs according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), meaning it’s considered to be dangerous and highly addictive, with no medical benefits. Despite this categorization, THC, the active drug compound in marijuana, is found to have various medical benefits. Because of it's Schedule I status, researchers have been hindered from conducting further studies, especially at the university level

To answer the question of why marijuana is illegal, it’s necessary to look at the story of U.S. government official Harry J. Anslinger. In 1930, Anslinger, a previous “avid” supporter of alcohol prohibition, became the first director of the newly-formed Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a position given to him by his wife’s uncle, the Secretary of Treasury Andrew Mellon. Mellon was an investor in Dupont, a large Nylon producing corporation that acted as a direct competitor to the hemp industry.  

As soon as Angslinger took office, he began a campaign against marijuana, centered around inaccurate fear mongering about race and violence. The following are examples of anti-marijuana quotes from Anslinger and his agency, according to Foundation of Economic Education

  • “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”
  • “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others.”
  • “Marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death.”

In fact, the word “marijuana” used commonly today was purposefully used by Anslinger, instead of the traditional North American word “cannabis,” to associate the dried plant with Mexican-Americans. At the time, racism against Mexicans was surging in the U.S, following an influx of immigrants due to the Mexican Revolution. This fear of immigrants was perpetuated by rising unemployment rates amidst the Great Depression. Anslinger utilized these racial tensions to monger fear surrounding marijuana. 

These themes of racism and violence were reiterated in the 1936 movie Reefer Madness, a propaganda film meant to “teach” kids about the dangers of using marijuana that portrays white teens losing their minds after being introduced to the plant by predatory dealers at a jazz party. 

Anslinger would go on to influence the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which federally regulated the importation, cultivation, possession and distribution of marijuana. The act also succeeded in making the U.S. hemp industry less profitable, ending the recreational use of marijuana, and eroding away the scientific study and medical usage of cannabis. 

He also publicly opposed Dr. William C. Woodward, legislative counsel for the American Medical Association who testified before the U.S. House of Representatives in opposition to the tax act and the federal regulation of marijuana. Anslinger pushed misinformation to sway public opinion against marijuana, while ignoring contrary expert opinions from the AMA. 

This public misinformation campaign was put into play by William Randolph Hearst, an associate of Anslinger’s who owned the biggest media conglomerate in the country at the time. His papers published statements such as “marijuana was known in India as the ‘murder drug,’ it was common for a man to ‘catch up a knife and run through the streets, hacking and killing every one he [encountered],” like what was printed in one 1928 Hearst newspaper – sensationalization that was, if anything, sure to sell.

Anslinger also testified in front of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1937, falsely attributing a series of horrific crimes like murder and rape to the perpetrators (usually teenagers) being under the influence of marijuana. He made statements like “opium has all of the good of Dr. Jekyll and all the evil of Mr. Hyde. This drug is entirely the monster Hyde, the harmful effect of which cannot be measured,” while comparing marijuana and opium. 

This rhetoric continued into the 1970’s. Though the Supreme Court found the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 to be unconstitutional in 1969, this was taken as an opportunity to officially ban cannabis for both recreational and medical use in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, signed into effect by President Richard Nixon. Ironically, Nixon also ignored recommendations to decriminalize marijuana instead, from a commission led by Republican Raymond Shafter – who Nixon himself appointed to look into the “dangers” of marijuana. 

This act also paved the way for Nixon’s infamous War on Drugs that has cost the U.S. billions of dollars since its inception, creating a system of mass incarceration for drug offenders the ACLU has called the “new Jim Crow” laws. Jim Crow laws were a series of racist legislation passed by southern and border states to continue suppression of black Americans after losing the Civil War.

John Erlichman, senior advisor to Nixon at the time, later stated in 1994: “we knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Today, though many states have legalized marijuana in some form, the criminalization of marijuana is a problem that still haunts the U.S. Those interested in standing up for their civil rights or worried about being searched by the police can download and print this NORML Foundation Freedom Card, which can be given to law enforcement to efficiently assert one’s unalienable rights. 

The card includes information communicating one’s rights to “remain silent, to consult with an attorney, and to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures by law enforcement” in the event of being questioned or detained by police. 

There’s a few important details to keep in mind when talking to law enforcement, whether or not one is actually guilty of a crime: first and foremost, law enforcement may tell a citizen that by cooperating with police, that there will be less consequences or they won’t be arrested. No one should ever believe this. Despite what the police may say, anything someone says to police “can and will” be used against them or others in court, as read during the Miranda Rights (which cops aren’t always required to read).

Don’t be fooled – the police’s job is to get a confession to use against the defendant in court during an arrest, not to help the defendant they’re arresting.

Police say this to trick people into giving consent to being searched and questioned. The U.S. constitution guarantees every American the right to be free from unreasonable search and also the right to not self-incriminate (meaning someone can’t be forced to testify against themselves in court). However, as soon as someone consents to talking to police or consents to being searched, they lose those constitutional rights and the protections that come with it. Police know this and take advantage of it when they can. 

This has even been enshrined into law by the supreme court, who ruled that cops simply lying in order to obtain a confession did not constitute an illegal coerced confession, in the 1969 decision Frazier v. Cupp

Gieringer said these laws vary by state, so it’s important to be aware of these differences when traveling across state lines. 

Those interested in joining the fight to federally legalize marijuana and/or learning what they can do to advocate for responsible marijuana legislation in California can find more information about joining NORML here.  

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