The United States has confidently pushed weed into the mainstream. Drive down Sunset or Ventura Boulevard in Los Angeles and you’ll see giant billboards for Kushy Punch or WeedMaps or Korova Edibles. Sure you have to be in a place where cannabis is legal, but it’s still the majority opinion that it should be everywhere. You see magazines talking about “ganja yoga” and op-eds written by women who believe medical weed has even made them a better mother. But who introduced cannabis in the first place to the masses? Have they since been punished? Weed reparations are necessary to address the corporate structure of cannabis in the United States.
What we easily overlook in this popularization of weed are people and communities who were disproportionately and unfairly punished for it. Despite evidence that people use cannabis at the same rate across racial and ethnic groups, communities of colour have been (and still are) the most affected by its criminalization.
Last year in New York, 90% of the people arrested for cannabis use were minorities and that’s just one of many corroborating statistics that reveal the same thing. It’s a cruel and sinister eyesore given the amount of money currently being made in the legal cannabis industry. Many of those affected are still behind bars for possessions as minuscule as a gram. Also, once they are released, many states prevent people with prior marijuana convictions from participating in the lucrative and legal industry. So the question for policy-makers, activists, business owners and the common consumer is “How can we make this right?”
This issue of reparations for the war on marijuana is complicated though. How do we correct the wrongs of incarceration when you can’t give people that time back? Most who study this issue agree that those disproportionately affected by time in jail should benefit from the highly profitable industry that put them there in the first place. Whether through streamlined access to the industry or social programs funded by earnings from legal cannabis businesses. The United States is at crossroads here and can either make amends for its historic callousness or let the original marijuana communities suffer the fate of historical erasure. It’s likely we’ll see more politicians use this tactic as leverage to support those with history in the established underground network of cannabis.
One of the organizations leading the push for weed reparations is Cage-Free Cannabis (CFC). Based in Los Angeles, Cage-Free Cannabis seeks to repair the social, political, economic and personal damages of the War on Drugs through influencing policy and legislation reform. They work closely with other advocacy groups in California and across the United States to institute the reparations that are so desperately needed. They do this by sponsoring criminal record expungement, job fairs, voter registration and social equity programs. As their website says, “Cage-Free helped launch the first-ever National Expungement Week (where they helped nearly 300 people in 15 cities begin the process of changing their criminal record) and supports organizations that provide services like: assisting with re-entry from incarceration, youth development and empowerment, healing from trauma, community-based gang intervention, organizing against the systematic injustice of the Drug War, and creating cannabis-related businesses that hire, empower, and include communities of color.”
Reparative justice is necessary and at least residents in California can agree on this. But setting up the legal parameters and institutional systems to aid these people in amending their mistakes is an operational nightmare. Sealing criminal records or reclassifying convictions through bills that would remove or reduce convictions on people’s records are often opposed by lawmakers and prosecutors. The argument is classic, anyone who violated prior laws shouldn’t be let off the hook just because of the law change.
Thankfully, California and Oregon are blazing the way with frameworks allowing people with marijuana-related crimes to apply for expungement. These efforts are necessary and if we don’t take the rectifying steps, history in the United States will reflect negligence in support of outdated thinking. “This is about harnessing the industry to embody the work of repair,” said Adam Vine, the group’s founder “Otherwise, legalization is just theft.”