From January 1, California now allows adults over 21 to legally buy marijuana from select retail shops. But who is this legalization endangering, and who is it still punishing?
Acting upon a ballot measure approved by California voters in 2016, marijuana legalization in California is expected to generate at least $1 billion a year in tax revenue.
However, the legalization of the drug is not without controversy or problems. While it is now legal to use marijuana recreationally in eight States, cannabis use still lacks legal standing with the federal government. This means there are still serious limits on the forms of banking and insurance that growers, processors and retailers can access.
This can have severe consequences, such as processors being prevented from opening accounts from federally insured banks, so that they must deal in cash, leaving them vulnerable to robberies and attacks. It's also extremely difficult for growers to purchase crop insurance - and given the recent fires in California, this has obvious and immediate dangers.
The legalization of cannabis in California also raises serious questions about America's existing laws and incarceration rates.
According to a Drug Policy Alliance report, in 2015, more than 6,000 Californians were in state prison or jail for the non-violent offences of growing or distributing marijuana. The day after Proposition 64 passed in California, these inmates were allowed to apply for early release or parole and have their records expunged. It’s only reasonable that other States that allow recreational use pass similar legislation for those prisoners who remain incarcerated for acts that are now legal in their own state.
Getting their records expunged is a necessary part of releasing people incarcerated for cannabis-related crimes. Having a criminal conviction for something that is now legal and making cannabis "entrepreneurs" wealthy can prevent formerly incarcerated people from voting, getting student loans (in a country where college tuition fees can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars), getting a job, maintaining a professional license, securing housing, or even adopting a child.
Another major impact of the government's historical war on marijuana is the systematic racism it upholds and perpetuates. According to the ACLU, marijuana arrests account for over half of all drug arrests in the United States, and the arrest data revealed one consistent trend: significant racial bias.
While Black people only make up 12 percent of the general population of the United States, they make up two-thirds of the prison population due to racially prejudiced practices such as Stop And Frisk, where police can choose to temporarily detain and search civilians for contraband. Numerous studies have shown that Black men and Latino men are consistently stopped at higher rates than white people.
Despite cannabis having roughly equal usage rates across racial demographics, Black people are four times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana, and Hispanic people more than three times.
The legalization of cannabis in California is a step forward in eradicating America's draconian laws around drug use, and the historically racist War On Drugs. However, it's important to remember who gets to celebrate this legalization and who is still being punished.