MLK Day & The War on Drugs

With MLK day and Black History Month fast approaching, the RELVA team can’t help but think about
what Dr. King’s thoughts would have been on the cannabis industry as it is today. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day marks the birthday of the nation’s eponymous civil rights leader. King was a leading advocate of nonviolent protest during the Civil Rights Movement, which successfully protested racial discrimination in state and federal laws. One of the most significant laws of the 20th century, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was enacted four years before Dr. King’s assassination in 1968. Two years after he passed away, the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (CSA) became one of the most controversial and insidious laws of the 20th century put in place by President Nixon.

Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 revived the “drug war” rhetoric, and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986
imposed mandatory minimum sentences nationwide. According to an ACLU report twenty years later,
the law “devastated African American and low-income communities.”1 In light of the real threat posed
by illegal drugs, the passing of this law was utterly out of proportion. There were approximately 22,000
drunk driving deaths every year in the 1980s, among 100,000 alcohol-related deaths. Compared to the
number of deaths caused by drunk driving, the number of deaths resulting from all illegal drugs
combined was minuscule.

We feel that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would most certainly advocate ending the War on Drugs if he
were alive today. Unfortunately, King never had the chance to speak publicly about drugs or cannabis in
particular. However, the War on Drugs has been, and remains a war on minorities and people of color.
There were more than six million arrests between 2010 and 2018, and Black people remain more likely
to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people in every state, including those that have
legalized it. It is the antithesis of equality and justice, and unfortunately, it is still going strong.

It’s been half a century since the CSA was formed, and it’s looking much worse for wear. Even as more
states legalize, 6,606 marijuana-related arrests were made in 2021. This was a 25% increase over the
prior year when the feds reported 4,992 arrests, according to data compiled by the U.S. Drug
Enforcement Administration. In addition to the arrests, the feds confiscated about 5.53 million
cultivated cannabis plants in 2021, a 20% jump from 2020.2

Most cannabis possession arrests occur among adolescents and young adults, disproportionately
affecting Black boys and young Black men.3 In the face of increasing momentum for legalization, we
wonder why is this continuing to occur despite federal prohibition and unnecessarily burdensome state
regulations. The opportunity to become a “potrepreneur” has never been greater—since drug money is no longer regarded as “dirty money.” What is the reason why those who have been excessively affected by the War on Drugs do not benefit from legalization economics if getting rich by rolling up is not limited to underground drug lords?

It all comes down to money and influence in the end.
The majority of states won’t let you apply for a cannabis license if you have been convicted of a
misdemeanor or arrested for possessing any drug, including marijuana. Aside from high licensing fees,
cannabis entrepreneurs must have significant funding available in order to enter the market.
Historically, people of color have had a hard time accessing capital and banking services. Access to
investment capital is among the other forms of business where racism is endemic, quiet, and institutional. Plus, exorbitant tax rates at all levels of government are clearly hampering the ability of
licensed cannabis businesses to compete in the unregulated market.

Finally, black entrepreneurs may hesitate to enter the industry due to the fact that they’ve historically
been punished more harshly for drug crimes. Since marijuana sales are still illegal under federal law, it raises the question of whether federal law enforcement agencies are tracking people in legalized states.
In particular, African Americans understand that anything within a gray area of the law puts them at
increased risk – and for good reason – since minorities are more likely to be targeted. Minorities may be
wary of entering a place where drugs are not fully legal due to the general element of racism and racial
disproportionality in law enforcement.

This couldn’t be more prevalent in our own city. Despite the decline in marijuana arrests, African
Americans still account for just under 90 percent of all cannabis-related arrests, even though they make
up just 45 percent of the city’s population.

According to studies, both Blacks and Whites use marijuana equally, but in the four years after
legalization, nearly 84 percent of those arrested in the nation’s capital were African Americans.
Defense attorneys and advocates told The Washington Post that officers target low-wage earning,
mostly Black communities because “that’s where officer deployments and investigations of violent crime
are concentrated.” In other words, officials use marijuana arrests as a reason to investigate other
offenses. 4

As of now, the solution to this situation is beyond obvious, and it doesn’t involve police officers dropping
from helicopters or conducting armed raids. For illegal cannabis activity to be minimized, policymakers
should pursue market-oriented, evidence-based, and justice-focused policies, and now is the time.
During his campaign, President Biden promised to decriminalize cannabis, and that all federal cannabis
convictions would be expunged. It seems as though he stuck to that promise right before mid-term
elections last year.5 Although the moves don’t fully decriminalize marijuana, they are the first significant
steps taken by a US president in that direction.

To quote from Martin Luther King’s book of collected speeches, A Testament of Hope: “White America
must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure
of our society. The comfortable, the entrenched, the privileged cannot continue to tremble at the
prospect of change in the status quo.”

Change has to come from the top down, as well as the bottom up. Dr. King wrote that we have a moral
responsibility to disobey unjust laws.6 We have a moral responsibility to change them too.
More than anything, drug policy reform is a civil rights and social justice issue. And we want all of our
readers should remember that on MLK Day.