I’ll start with a list.
These words will not appear in the following editorial:
Any other smirking, behind-the-hand Cheech and Chong nonsense about c. sativa.
Marijuana’s not a joke. It’s an industry.
How big depends on how you count, but at a bare minimum, eight of the fifty states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for both medical and recreational use.
69,672,345 Americans, roughly a fifth of the country, can use, grow and, with proper licensing, sell cannabis and its associated products.
This is grownup business, and it’s time to talk like it.
Over at BuzzFeed, Amanda Chicago Lewis has been doing exactly that, calling out what she has identified as a serious racial skew in the legal marijuana business.
Short version: under federal law, marijuana is still illegal, period.
All the way up in Schedule 1, legally defined as “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” When state laws disagree, marijuana becomes legal to use and sell within an acceptable regulatory framework.
As everyone who has had a boss, a significant other, a roommate, indeed any significant interaction with another h. sapiens has learned, the definition of “acceptable” varies from person to person and group to group.
Group standards become good practice, and good practice, as often as not, becomes law.
That said, when standards change, practice sometimes fails to follow. Per Pew Research, 57% of Americans are in favor of marijuana legalization, and, in the “demographics are destiny” department, that number rises to a ludicrous 71 percent among people under 40. That’s definitely a different standard.
What about practice?
What do we do with the unavoidable fact that a substantial segment of drug offenses, far and away the most common reason for American citizens to be incarcerated (50% of federal prisoners and 20% of state prisoners were convicted of drug offenses) has become something Starbucks could do if it wanted?
Not much, Amanda Chicago Lewis says, and she has numbers to back it up. Not enough.
The racial imbalances that play themselves out in American life and American justice are imposing themselves on this new business opportunity, and this is our chance to fix it.
Ms. Lewis focuses in particular on the stories of Americans victimized by a perverse irony: people convicted of using or selling marijuana who, due to their convictions, are now legally or economically barred from selling marijuana. They don’t have rap sheets anymore, they have resumes, but banks and regulatory bodies alike don’t make that distinction.
It’d be funny if it weren’t hurting people.
It is. Badly.
That’s just the cover of the book.
It’s no secret that serious racial disparity exists in the American justice system: black and Hispanic Americans in particular are targeted more, arrested more and sentenced more harshly than white ones. What causes our system to fail in that way and how to go about fixing it are questions well beyond the scope of this article, but the facts are, to pick a loaded idiom, in black and white.
As the ACLU data shows, people of different races abuse drugs at roughly the same rate.
Go figure, we’re human.
But everyone from the ACLU to the Washington Post to the Department of Justice itself acknowledges that minority citizens are disproportionately convicted of drug offenses, receive harsher sentences, and experience greater consequences in post-prison life.
In the form it’s taking now, the marijuana industry runs a serious risk of replicating that injustice.
If that’s too uncomfortable, try it in the abstract.
It’s the Thirties, and you’re in a speakeasy. Louis Armstrong is up on the bandstand playing low and slow. There’s Bogart smoke curling around every light, and a guy/doll is giving you the eye, fixing to get you into just the right kind of trouble. Then Mugsy books it up the back stairs.
You just make the door. Your last sight through the smoke is Charlie, your best barkeep, one hand up and the other cuffed.
It’s a year later. Volstead’s off the books, thank goodness. A familiar face shows up at your office, one with a lot more lines in it.
It’s Charlie. He’s out.
He’s got his bar back, because he’s an amazing bar owner. Of course he’s an amazing bar owner. He kept his joint above water when advertising would get him locked up and his suppliers were psychopaths. All he needs is a liquor license. So you smile, and stamp DENIED, because he’s a felon.
That’s not a twisted joke. It’s what’s happening right now.
We’re in the early days of legal American marijuana. That’s when action is most important.
It’s still possible to model our values in our business decisions without establishment inertia.
Regulations that ban nonviolent drug offenders from working in the marijuana industry, licensing agencies that fail to approve them, and banks that won’t lend to them are failing their clients, their country and plain common sense.
Worse, with no ill intent, simply an outdated assumption – “felon equals unemployable” instead of “felon equals professional experience in the relevant field” – they’re perpetuating the racial injustice already inflicted on far too many American citizens.
The ball is rolling on legalization, and it shows no sign of slowing down.
But marijuana was never just a legal issue. It was a cultural one, pinballing from failed policy to racially skewed enforcement to thousands of suffering Americans.
As legal marijuana becomes part of American life, it is vital we address it with an eye to what made prohibition, indeed Prohibition, such a trainwreck in the first place.
If we fail in that obligation, we’ll end up right back in the Roaring Twenties, when the richest and whitest Gatsbied it up with great gouts of their nominally illegal tipple of choice, while single bottles of the same ruined the lives of poor people, people of color, and above all both.
We can do this better. Let’s.