The legalization of marijuana has been a hot-button political issue state-wide and nationwide for years. In the past few decades, thousands of people across the city and the state have been swept into the prison industrial complex, exploited for prison labor and subjected to violence and abuse. Many of us know that the “War on Drugs” was and is racially motivated. It was also implemented in a way that mostly affected lower-income Americans, who for entirely different and entirely similar reasons happened to more likely be people of color. The first question I asked when I heard that Governor Cuomo was going to legalize marijuana was, “Will people’s records be expunged?”
Legalization without expungement is almost useless. Not entirely useless, because of course people will not be arrested in the future for non-violent drug charges. But it’s not entirely justice either, because we must recognize and reconcile the millions of men and women who have been forced into the prison system on non-violent drug charges, whether or not they are still serving their sentences behind bars. Even if they are out of jail or prison, they still live in an invisible box made of parole regulations, discriminatory housing, and the little black box on job applications that ask, “Have you ever been convicted?” The bill that will hopefully pass and be implemented in New York soon will, thankfully, call for the “automatic expungement of records for people with convictions for illegal activities that are no longer criminalized.” This is a great step, and it is only one of many on the long long road of undoing the damage that the War on Drugs has already done.
The racial bias of the arbitrary War does not, of course, start or stop with marijuana. Crack cocaine carries a prison sentence 100 times harsher than powder cocaine because crack cocaine was, at least initially, found much more often in inner cities and used by people of color. In fact, the federal law itself was written and championed by now-president Joe Biden, in his 1986 “Anti-Drug Abuse” bill, eventually signed into law by Ronald Reagan. Despite Vice President Kamala Harris’ promise to decriminalize marijuana under a Biden-Harris administration, the White House has instead fired 5 aides for admitting they had smoked in the past, even in places where it was legal. Additionally, with the new release of Hunter Biden’s memoir Beautiful Things where he discusses his struggles with addiction openly and honestly, many are taking a look at his father’s history of drug policy during his years in the Senate. Finally, at the same time that the defense attorneys for Derek Chauvin are attempting to claim that George Floyd’s death was caused by his drug habit and not the knee that we all saw pressed into his neck for almost 10 minutes. We are seemingly surrounded these days by news about drugs: drug addiction, drug legalization, and everything in between. The truth is, the War on Drugs was born of a deep lack of understanding for people struggling with addiction. The causes for drug addiction are plentiful, but many come from the stresses of day-to-day life, especially the day-to-day life of the oppressed and the poverty-stricken. Without attempting to fix the inequalities and the disparities that lead to drug use and drug dependence, including joblessness and income inequality, drug education and education in general, homelessness, racism and classism, among many others, it will be difficult for us to understand people who struggle with addiction. Addicts are not morally bankrupt people; addicts do not deserve condemnation, discrimination, or death. Addicts deserve help, care, and hope for the future. The criminalization of drugs, especially in systems like the racially motivated American one, has only wreaked further havoc on fragile communities. It’s time that we took the first step and legalize marijuana nationwide, and perhaps while we’re at it take a look at all the other drug laws and their effects as well (maybe taking a page out of Portugal’s book, for one). It’s long overdue. We must start seeing people as people first, not criminals — especially people who are simply in need of help, not condemnation.