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MLK Day & The War on Drugs

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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 and the “Drug War” Rhetoric

Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 revived the “drug war” rhetoric. Since then, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 imposed mandatory minimum sentences across the country.

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.

During this time, there were approximately 22,000 drunk driving deaths each year.

Compared to the number of deaths caused by drunk driving, the number of deaths resulting from all illegal drugs combined was minuscule.

Would MLK Advocate Ending the War on Drugs?

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

However, back then and still today, the War on Drugs is a war on people of color and other minorities.

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.

The Controlled Substance Act in Today’s World

It’s been half a century since the CSA was formed, and it’s looking much worse for wear.

Even as more states legalize it, 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

Cannabis Possession Arrests

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 this is continuing to occur despite federal prohibition and unnecessarily burdensome state

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.

Cannabis Entrepreneurs and Racial Injustice

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.

Cannabis Laws and Racial Profiling

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% of all cannabis-related arrests, even though they make up just 45% of the city’s population.

According to studies, both Blacks and Whites use marijuana equally, but in the four years after legalization, nearly 84% 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

What Can We Do About the “War on Drugs”?

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 the 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.

A Final Thought

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.

In his writings, Dr. King said that we have a moral responsibility to disobey laws that are unjust.6

We have a moral responsibility to change them too.

Drug policy reform is a social justice and civil rights issue.

And we want all of our readers to remember that on MLK Day.