By Megan Kirk
With Michigan’s vote to legalize cannabis in 2019, some saw it as the state’s first step in the decriminalization of its use, distribution and consumption. Still, outdated views on the drug continue to perpetuate stigmas. As many in the cannabis field work to dispel misconceptions surrounding cannabis, there still exists a legal uphill battle on the national, state and local levels.
The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 opened the doors to the criminalization of cannabis. The federal law imposed a tax on the sale, possession or distribution of hemp. At the hands of Harry Aslinger, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner and his anti-marijuana rhetoric, a hazy cloud bloomed over marijuana leaving many to suffer legal consequences.
“After prohibition, they were no longer attacking bootleggers and alcohol, they needed a new drug, a new thing to criminalize. They took marijuana and made that the next thing to start criminalizing and literally, some of the propaganda he used in that time was like ‘reefer makes Black men think they’re as good as white men,” said Jessica Jackson, co-founder of Copper House Detroit, a bud and breakfast and co-founder and COO of Loud Social, a social media marketing agency for cannabis companies. “They literally used racist propaganda to demonize this plant because it was associated with our community.”
Though cannabis is used by many regardless of race, economic standing and educational background, many marijuana cases involve the imprisonment of members of the Black and Brown communities, particularly males. Across the country, Black individuals are four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis offenses, despite similar rates of consumption when compared to that of white communities.
“I know in 2018 there were like 630,000 arrests from cannabis and that was just the arrest. There were three million stops from cannabis, but from our color,” said Brittany Wyche, owner of The Weed Bar and Plant Life CBD.
The 1970s War on Drugs was another key step in the criminalization of marijuana. The government-led initiative worked to crack down on users and distributors of illicit drugs, including cannabis. Categorized as a Schedule 1 drug under the Control Substances Act, marijuana was associated with heroin, LSD and ecstasy. Schedule 1 drugs are considered the most dangerous and highly addictive. Yet the presumed war on drugs seemed to launch another attack on Black and Brown communities across the country.
The criminalization of cannabis has also impacted employment. Subject to drug tests contingent for employment, potential workers are being excluded from the economic dream either for prior convictions or usage. Though cannabis remains the most commonly used drug across the states, its effects cause a ripple extending to financial stability. Aside from employment, cannabis convictions can also spill into other aspects of life leaving those with little chance for progress.
“We are more likely to be criminalized. In some areas, we are ten times more likely to be criminalized for cannabis and when you have a criminal conviction, not only are you presented with financial barriers, but there are 48,000 barriers that someone with a criminal conviction faces,” said Jackson. “From barriers to housing to barriers in jobs, barriers in transportation, barriers to education; if you have a criminal conviction, you’re automatically going to be in a bucket that has way more barriers to just start a business because it’s harder for you to even get a job.”
Helping to perpetuate criminalization, older generations still view cannabis as a gateway drug to more harsh practices. The War on Drugs helped to lay the narrative that would last for decades to come. With this ideology, many do not see the cannabis industry for what it is — a multi-billion dollar-business with lucrative outcomes.
“With our people, first step with us as a community, we have to destigmatize consumption and use of cannabis. I work in cannabis. Not only do I have two cannabis businesses, I work in corporate cannabis and my wife is a grower. We make good money in this industry, but I still cannot tell my grandma that we work in cannabis because in her mind, she views it as something evil — as something that’s criminal,” said Jackson.
Now, advocates, users and some non-users are looking to get into the cannabis field to not only help decriminalize it, but to push for social equity in the field. With the city of Detroit recent approval of its recreational ordinance, the possibilities could prove to be endless for the multi-billion-dollar-industry. However, it could be some time before canna-professionals see the proof of their labor.
“Right now, we are in the middle of fighting for fairer social equity terms. So, right now, they are making it very difficult for some of the long-term Detroiters to have a better opportunity when it comes to getting their stores. Right now, we’re basically fighting for a higher percentage of stores,” said Wyche.
As cannabis begins to be largely legalized, many are wondering how the law will catch up. With thousands of arrests for non-violent marijuana convictions, advocates hope the law will erase what society deems inexcusable.
“I definitely think they should be expunged totally because we cannot allow businesses to profit millions and billions from something that people have generationally [seen as] a huge negative impact. From the structure of homes being taken away and just from how it has hurt us financially, we’re still dealing with a lot of the consequences of it,” said Wyche. “I really think it would help to decriminalize this and expunge people’s records so that we can have a better society when it comes to helping them get jobs and helping them go to college.”