Last week, San Francisco held its annual 4/20 festival in Golden Gate Park, attracting marijuana enthusiasts from across the country. This city celebrates the herb like no other, but among all the joy, we need to talk about the thousands who have been historically incarcerated just for possession.
While some states have taken strides in legalizing weed in the past decade, others are still fighting a war on drugs. According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, every year over 300,000 people across the nation are imprisoned for marijuana possession, and a majority are people of color.
Racial bias and discrimination have always been present in the U.S., and it shows in the racially disproportionate cannabis-related convictions. According to the Legal Defense Fund, a non-profit that uses legal services in cases of racial justice, in 2018, 89% of those federally sentenced on cannabis charges were people of color. An article from the fund cites that, “Despite using cannabis at a slightly lower rate than their white counterparts, Black people are roughly four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis.”
In October of 2022, President Biden pardoned anyone who had been federally charged with simple possession (an ounce or less) of marijuana. According to CNBC, more than 6,500 people were affected by the pardon, removing some barriers the charge imposed when the convicted applied to jobs and housing. However the act only pardoned those who were charged on or before Oct. 6, 2022, rendering it useless in future policy.
On April 19, the Harnessing Opportunities by Pursuing Expungent (HOPE) Act was reintroduced in the House. This bipartisan bill was initially introduced in 2021 by Representatives David Joyce and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but never made its way to the House floor. If passed, it would allow the Department of Justice to make grants for state and local governments to relieve financial and administrative burdens connected to expunging cannabis-related convictions, like expanding support to rehabilitation sites.
The HOPE Act may not pass, but it certainly has a better chance today than it ever has before. In late 2022, Pew Research Center published a study that showed 59% of U.S. adults thought marijuana should be legal for both medical and recreational purposes. This majority percentage starkly contrasts 1970, when the Controlled Substances Act made marijuana a “schedule 1” controlled substance, the same designation as heroin. While there is some opposition to the bill, it appears to be a less partisan issue, with some Republicans pursuing the lifting of cannabis restrictions legally.
Experts suggest that this shift in public perception of marijuana comes from more positive media coverage of the drug. National data from 2021 shows that more than 5 million people often legally use medical marijuana to regulate pain. Recreational marijuana, though less clear in the purpose of its use, is widely known to decrease anxiety and increase feelings of joy.
According to Pew Research Center, the younger people are, the more accepting of marijuana they are — 72% of people ages 18-29 said marijuana should be legal for both medical and recreational use, compared to only 30% of people aged 75 or older. Young people’s attitudes seem to be part of the reason why overall acceptance of cannabis has increased, so if we keep our eyes on the prize and remember the racist truth of the war on drugs, decriminalization could be in our future.
The legalization of marijuana will destigmatize the drug and prove it is not inextricably linked with any particular race. Until then, legislation like the HOPE Act can help reduce the harm that has already been done.