Now that the New Jersey state Senate was unable to pass the marijuana legalization bill (S-2703) and the expungement bill (S-3205), the voters will have an opportunity to decide in a 2020 ballot referendum question. If the referendum passes, what would legalization look like? Although, marijuana legalization would create job opportunities for many people, there are still many restorative justice components that have not been clearly defined. As marijuana legalization goes mainstream, it is easy to forget the history behind its prohibition.
When President Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substance Act (CSA) of 1970, marijuana was classified as a schedule I drug. This is the category for drugs with no medical use and high potential for abuse. Despite having scientific evidence and reports of the effects of marijuana, President Nixon wanted to take a hard stand and wage the War on Drugs. He appointed Raymond Shafer, former governor of Pennsylvania, to the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse, to conduct a study on the effects of marijuana. In the report, Shafer recommended that Congress decriminalize possession of marijuana. Based on Oval Office tapes that were declassified in 2002, the Shafer report went against what Nixon wanted, which was to obscure the clear differences between marijuana and other hard drugs. Nixon championed the War on Drugs, which allows de facto racial profiling, discrimination, and disenfranchisement to affect the most vulnerable communities in the United States.
Racial discrimination rather than public safety
Classifying marijuana as a schedule I drug had everything to do with racial discrimination, and nothing to do with public safety. This was a way to write drugs into the law and racially target the black and Latino minority communities. Even though people from all ethnic backgrounds use marijuana at the same rate, only African American and Latino men are imprisoned at disproportionally higher rates.
People are serving life sentences for marijuana-related convictions, as the billion-dollar legal marijuana industry is booming. At the same time, minorities are still being excluded from the legal marijuana industry. People that have the knowledge about marijuana but are otherwise crippled by a criminal record will not be able to profit or prosper in the marijuana industry. There is something wrong in that logic. This is an indication that the racial injustices in our laws will persist unless we get it right this time. New Jersey legislators have an opportunity to move beyond the destruction caused by the legal War on Drugs.
On behalf on the Newark branch of NAACP, our stand on the issue of marijuana legislation is as follows: We need restorative justice for all the people that have been deprived of a future because of marijuana-related offenses on their record. We need to get people out of jail for non-violent marijuana possession convictions. We need to ensure that minorities have equitable access to the legal marijuana industry. It is time that justice and reparations are served to communities that have been historically targeted by biased policing and racial profiling.