The Forest for The Trees: Shifting Perceptions of Black Cannabis Use

In light of the recent events surrounding police brutality and the contact that law enforcement makes with Black people, it is critical to consider the disproportionate sentencing and treatment of Blacks as a result of minor offenses involving small amounts of drugs, namely cannabis.

On May 1, 1971, President Richard M. Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act. This legislative action effectively initiated concentrated punitive force in low income, high crime areas that happened to be populated by the Black community. Soon after, researchers, psychologists, and legal professionals began to notice the number and nature of arrests skyrocketed past those in Caucasian communities for similar offenses.

In response, states across the country have taken steps to decriminalize marijuana possession. For example, on November 4, 2018, the state of Massachusetts passed a bill to allow cannabis possession in small amounts. However, the ACLU has found that the changes in regulation have not made sufficient impact in changing arrest rates — Black people are still 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for possession than whites.

What could be generating the gap between the two demographics? Harvard anthropologist Jason Silverstein asserts that a failure of empathy perpetuates racial disparities. Cannabis is widely known to alleviate various medical ailments. In his study, Silverstein concludes that both Black and white people seem to think that Black people feel less pain. 

This sentiment is crucial when considering the verbiage used when describing the so-called “War On Drugs” in Black neighborhoods versus the “opioid epidemic” in white communities. This difference in perception means white offenders can more readily build a life after being in the legal system while Blacks have more difficulty when they leave.

Some states are at the forefront of change. Colorado has already taken action to grant pardons for cannabis convictions. Such convictions can interfere in achieving important milestones such as leases, mortgages, and jobs.

Pushes for empathy and investigation of the long-term effects of inequitable arrests can inform ways of creating a more even playing field in terms of economic equity for Blacks.

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