by Bliss Davis — Columbia University, Class of 2024
I decided to spend my time interning with NORML this past fall for two reasons: 1) I believe that marijuana criminalization is a highly problematic public policy, and 2) I believe that there is a need for better information regarding responsible marijuana consumption.
I am hardly alone in my belief that the criminalization of marijuana perpetuates structural racism. I won’t dig too far into this argument as many more qualified than me have provided excellent research and analysis on the subject. In my opinion, some of the best analysis comes from Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, a text that lit a fire under my intellectual interest in drug policy reform. She writes, “Mass incarceration is the most pressing racial justice issue of our time,” and the United States’ War on Drugs is its greatest contributor.
The role of the enforcement of marijuana prohibition in the War on Drugs is clear. After conducting an assessment of marijuana offenders from 1990–2002, King and Mauer (2006) concluded that the “war on drugs’ in the 1990s was, essentially, a ‘war on marijuana.’” In fact, a significant percentage of all drug arrests during this time period were for marijuana possession. As recently as 2018, four in ten of the more than 600,000 drug arrests that year were for marijuana offenses. Historically, these arrests have been excessively imposed upon my community. As the ACLU reported in 2020, extreme racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests have not gotten better since 2010. On average, Black people were 3.6 times more likely than white to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite using at roughly the same rate.
Without question, marijuana criminalization has been a key driver of mass incarceration and communities of color have been devastated because of it. As Alexander describes at length, criminalization has been used to dilute access to education, wealth building, civil rights and liberties, and voting rights.
For these reasons, I believe that adult-use marijuana legalization must be reparative and restorative. By advocating for policies like expungement and social equity licensure, NORML recognizes that legalization must provide opportunities to right past wrongs and those communities that have been most harmed by them.
Additionally, I believe that the complex relationship between cannabis and mental health underscore the need for both better regulation and consumer awareness.
While the data clearly bears out this claim, my personal experience is what largely informs my opinion. On April 20th of 2022, I experienced a cannabis-induced manic episode. I lost my perception of time, hallucinated, and experienced paranoia and intense delusions – all symptoms that brought me to a nearly month-long hospitalization. To address these new challenges, I took a leave of absence from school the following September. While considering how I’d best spend my time, I came across an article by none other than NORML’s deputy director, Paul Armentano. Although this article dates back to 2007, this one quote remains relevant for me in 2022: “If there does exist a minority population who may be genetically prone to potential harms from cannabis…then a regulated system would best identify and educate this sub-population to pot’s potential risks so that they may refrain from its use, if they so choose.”
In short, this acutely traumatic experience could have been avoided if I had been better aware of the potential risks for people with psychiatric disorders like mine – information I’d never received and that I have only begun to learn after the fact. As a consumer advocacy organization, I respect NORML’s commitment to educate the public and to provide objective, evidence-based information that allows consumers (and others) to engage in informed decisions.
At a time when record levels of Americans support legalizing and regulating cannabis, the federal government still continues to aggressively enforce prohibition. From 2020 to 2021, Americans’ support for legalization remained steady at the historic high of 68 percent. Over this same time period, the DEA ramped up its seizure of marijuana plants and increased the number of marijuana-related arrests by more than 30 percent.
This discrepancy reveals a huge democratic deficit. When it comes to marijuana policy, our government has fallen short of a basic principle of representative democracy: that all political power is derived from the will of the people. Further, this democratic deficit shows us the intractability of the decades-long ‘war on drugs.’ The growing number of states and localities willing to authorize medical and recreational marijuana, combined with the thousands of record expungements and recognition from the Head of State that “No one should be in jail for merely using or possessing marijuana” are encouraging, but now is not the time for complacency.
Justice is not a natural part of the lifecycle of the United States; it is the outcome of struggle and intense debate. The spotlight now shines on marijuana law reform because it brings together important conversations over decarceration, racial equity, public health, and informed consumption. As long as NORML remains a leader of this public discussion, I intend to stay involved.