Marijuana Legislation Must Account for Racial Injustice

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With an almost two-to-one ratio vote on Issue 3, Ohio did not legalize recreational marijuana on Tuesday. By a much smaller margin, Issue 2 passed. The state-sponsored Issue 2 was a direct response to ResponsibleOhio’s marijuana legalization proposal, which would have created an oligopoly of 25 total investors in 10 proposed growing plots, concentrating the revenue from legalization in their already-wealthy hands.

A recent poll from Quinnipiac University showed a 53 percent approval rate for recreational marijuana and a 90 percent approval rate for medicinal marijuana. Yet Issue 3 may not have passed because many voters were concerned that Black and other minority communities affected most by the drug war and criminalization of marijuana wouldn’t see their share of the profits from legalization.

In Ohio, there’s no doubt that Issue 3 going up in smoke will disproportionately affect Black people and other people of color who are being arrested for possession at a much higher rate. An exhaustive report by the American Civil Liberties Union shows that as of 2010, Black Ohioans were four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as whites and made up 38.1 percent of possession-related arrests, despite making up only 12.6 percent of the state’s population. Less evidence has been collected on the arrest rates of other communities of color, but history shows that the majority of non-white communities have been disproportionately punished for drug-related crimes.

Had Issue 3 passed, all penalties on possession of one ounce of marijuana would have been eliminated, and 12,000 arrests per year would have been prevented, saving the state over $100 million annually. Legalization also would have paved the way for the proposed Fresh Start Program, an initiative designed to expunge the records of those convicted of marijuana-related crimes and allow those convicted to petition the court to reverse or modify any sanctions currently imposed.

Legalization would have, if nothing else, helped ease the burden of Black and low-income Ohioans whose fight against the criminalization of drugs, police brutality and systemic incarceration is a daily reality.

But for many, all the “would haves” and “could haves” didn’t add up to a “should have.” The main argument among those otherwise pro-legalization was that it would have created an oligopoly, limiting the profits to former reality star Nick Lachey, fashion designer Nanette Lepore and sports stars like retired NBA star Oscar Robertson and the Arizona Cardinals’ Frostee Rucker, among 22 other well-off investors. In the words of The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander, “Granting an oligopoly to 10 wealthy investors who hope to get rich quick by exploiting an opportunity created by a movement that aimed to remedy decades of relentless punishment of the poorest and most vulnerable is not justice.”

At the polls, voters decided the reality of the state’s political situation: Those disproportionately affected will continue to suffer until a more equitable legalization policy is proposed. The rejection of Issue 3 may disregard the urgency of the communities who would have benefited from legalization, but we’ve made our decision. The next step is to capitalize on the time gained from tabling the legislation and advocate for a policy that will prioritize racial justice over capitalist greed.

Inevitably, developing just legalization policy would involve a multitude of strategies: increased advocation, community organizing and wider educational policy, to name a few. Issue 2 does ensure that no future monopoly will gain full financial benefit of the future industry, but this does not mean that policymakers will prioritize racial justice while forming future legislation.

As a community of temporary Ohioans, it is our job to make sure that the crawl toward legalization remains at the forefront of policymaking. This is a history that recognizes that Black folks, people of color and low-income communities have been shamed and punished for selling the drug for the past half-century — a history that has destroyed families and fed millions back into the prison industrial complex. Tightening Ohio’s already-strained resources with a state prison system that exceeds capacity by 33 percent is a history that we have the potential to indefinitely alter.

As we move to different avenues of legalization, it is imperative that we hold ourselves accountable to these histories and ensure they do not persist. A truly equitable legalization policy is one that neither erases nor further exploits the communities disproportionately affected. Issue 3 was not the answer to this injustice, but the 2016 ballot has yet to be written.

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