Does the pro-cannabis movement have a social justice problem?

Recently, cannabis icon Dana Larsen posted a poll on Twitter asking readers why they want to see cannabis prohibition end. Of the top reasons, including medicinal benefits, environmental benefits, and economic benefits, human rights were, by far, the number one reason given, with over 50 percent of the vote. 

Social justice has long been at the center of the cannabis legalization movement, with everyone from politicians to those in the industry itself claiming it as one of the top reasons for ending prohibition. As recently as today, Sen. Cory Booker was seen championing the Marijuana Justice Act amid the coronavirus epidemic, highlighting the disparity between states listing cannabis businesses as essential and federal prohibition.

“It’s something I’m going to fight for. This hypocrisy—these drug laws that we have that are archaic and cruel—they must end,” said Booker on Facebook. “I’m going to fight to make sure right now that this ugliness is over in our country and we do the right thing on the federal level. And our momentum is building by the way.”

But for all of the talk of social equity in cannabis circles, justice has struggled to materialize. As NBC News noted earlier this year, black entrepreneurs are still struggling to join the legal weed industry, while blacks are still around 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana. Even in states where cannabis has been legalized, black cannabis consumers still face being arrested for nuisance crimes such as public consumption more frequently than whites.

Moreover, what’s happened now is that the cannabis movement’s social justice issues have become fodder for the anti-legalization campaign. A quick Google search for “cannabis” and “social justice” immediately brings up hits from some of the most prominent anti-cannabis organizations that have now begun to use the issue as a talking point against the industry.

Smart Approaches to Marijuana, or SAM, one of the leading opponents of cannabis legalization, has argued that social justice has been lacking in the cannabis movement. “Where there are issues of systemic injustice and racism, legalization does not address the root of these issues and instead only exacerbates these problems by promoting increased drug use and the accompanying negative social consequences in disadvantaged communities,” the group wrote in a pamphlet on cannabis and social justice that it put out as part of its literature.

So what can the cannabis community do to turn things around? How can a movement that claims to put social justice at the forefront start putting its money where its mouth is?

For starters, social justice in the cannabis movement starts with how marijuana is presented in the media. It was the media that was critical in turning cannabis into one of the greatest “dangers” of the 20th century, and it’s the media that needs to start changing how cannabis is perceived today.

As Adweek noted last year, part of this means media outlets, from newsmakers to advertisers, need to stop whitewashing the cannabis industry. The idea that marijuana is more palatable to the masses has undoubtedly helped the plant become more mainstream. Still, the focus on soccer moms and white millennial professionals have shown a conscious effort to destigmatize with whiteness. If cannabis is as inclusive as people say it is, this needs to end.

Moreover, legalized states need to stop discriminating against people with criminal records, a move that has disproportionately left many black people out of the “weed boom” of the past decade.

"It really does piss me off,” Unique Henderson told Buzzfeed News. He’s an African American who was denied employment in Colorado’s nascent cannabis industry because he was caught with a joint’s worth of marijuana as a kid. "And to see a lot of people come to Colorado to work in weed, that pisses me off even more. They’re coming here, living comfortable, and it’s like, I could be doing the same thing, but I can’t, because of my past with marijuana.”

There’s a lot more the movement could be doing as well, from grant programs for African Americans to opening up more executive positions in the corporate cannabis companies. Until any of that happens, it will be tough for the cannabis movement to argue that social justice truly is one of its priorities.

Image: Sonya Yruel/Drug Policy Alliance

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