Published on September 10th, 2020 |
by Burlington Partnership
Discussion about cannabis has a reputation for seeding misinformation leaving some in a haze of confusion. For a while now, we’ve been hearing a push for legalizing commercial sales of cannabis as a way to address issues of systemic injustice. At a quick glance, it sounds plausible. People of color in the US are almost 6 times more likely to be arrested on charges related to all drugs, including marijuana, than whites.
However, while we know systemic injustice and racism exists in our criminal justice system, legalization does not address the root of these issues. As we’ve already learned with alcohol and tobacco, it can instead exacerbate these problems. For instance, commercial industries that need to recruit new long-term heavy users have a history of supporting efforts to increase retailers and advertising in disadvantaged communities. Tobacco companies channel more advertising, discounts, and displays of their dangerous products — and the health problems that come with them— into Black communities than white neighborhoods.
It is even possible that legalization may delay true social justice reform, because expungements, pardons, and social reforms will then be tied to the approval of a predatory commercial industry rather than demanding that these reforms be made (whether or not there is a legal commercial industry at all). This article recently published in the Penn Journal Law Review on the intersection of marijuana legalization and social justice and discusses the harms this industry brings about on people of color and other disadvantaged communities. It shares arrest data from a few states that have already legalized and shows that the charge for the “crime” may have changed, but the color of persons being arrested has not. “In all ‘legalized’ states, the disproportionate impact of drug arrests, including for marijuana, remains high. Washington D.C. provides an example of the continuation of racial bias. Between 2015 and 2017 (the years right after the state legalized sales), although total marijuana-related arrests decreased, distribution and public consumption arrests nearly quadrupled.” 84.8% of marijuana distribution or public consumption adult arrestees were African Americans. A just society ensures that no person, regardless of race or ethnicity, is exposed again and again to experiences that we know are harmful.
We know that the earlier people start using any substance the more likely they are to develop a problem, which is why our coalition focuses on prevention strategies. The substances that kids almost always start with are alcohol, tobacco, and cannabis. Big Alcohol and Big Tobacco have a long history of marketing products to minors, BIPOC, people who identify as LGBTQ+, and low-income neighborhoods. In order for commercial industries to make a profit, it is necessary to get people using early and often to develop long and lasting users. The growing marijuana industry is set to follow the same playbook and is now even bankrolled by major alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceutical industries. Promotion and easy access to substances in communities has been shown to increase high-risk use and the development of substance use disorders. The Burlington Partnership for a Healthy Community is committed to helping Burlington prevent and reduce the causes and consequences of substance misuse by supporting an environment in which all community members can thrive, and the healthy choices are the easy choices for everyone regardless of who they are or where they live.
These are highly complex issues and it is important for everyone to become educated about the marijuana available today and how it is impacting communities, particularly our youth. How will you help support good information and education about marijuana in our community?
- Will you share information from VT’s Let’s Talk Cannabis campaign for adults or ParentUP to help parents of tweens and teens prevent youth marijuana and other substance use?
- Will you read VT’s Marijuana Legalization Health Impact Assessment? In 2015-16, at the request of the legislature, the Vermont Department of Health worked with a team of people to do a data-driven examination of the health impact of marijuana legalization on our state. The report outlines the potential public health impacts and considerations for marijuana legalization. As far as we know, Vermont is still the only state to have done an HIA related to this issue.
Reach out to us here if you have any thoughts or questions.
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