What does decriminalising marijuana mean for the USA?

Marijuana Candid Orange

The United States Senate has taken a great step towards decriminalising marijuana nationwide, with some 228 members of the house voting in favour of the MORE Act (2019) last Friday.

What does decriminalisation mean?

This bill not only legalises the consumption and production of marijuana, including non-medical uses, but will also review and expunge cases for nonviolent convictions related to the drug. This means that people who have been imprisoned or faced charges relating to marijuana may have them reduced or even dropped altogether.

The MORE Act also directly acknowledges that different communities, races, and ethnicities have been disproportionately impacted by previous drug legislation. Such recognition by the Senate is an incredible step in the right direction, as many legislators and citizens have previously argued adamantly that drug crimes are charged fairly and equally.

The history of marijuana in America

Marijuana is a subject that, in decades past, has divided the nation due to its conservative population. However, doctors and legislators have known for a while that it is not as harmful a drug as perceived and taught. So, why has it taken this long to legalise?

The discourse around weed began in the 1970s, under Richard Nixon’s presidency, when it was classed as a Schedule I drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act during a period widely known as Nixon’s ‘War on Drugs’.

Under this, a Schedule I drug is defined as a substance “[… that] has a high potential for abuse […] has no currently accepted medical use in treatment […] there is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.”

Richard Nixon had a no-tolerance policy when it came to drugs, and was very vocal and forthcoming with his opinions on cannabis and how users should be treated. He was in favour of harsher sentencing and stricter laws around drugs, given the growth in use the era before.

Changing public attitudes around drugs in the ‘swingin’ 60s’ can be attributed to the growing use of marijuana at the time, as well as the end of the Vietnam War, where many troops were exposed to substances for the first time. However, it has recently been revealed that there were racial motivations behind criminalising marijuana to the highest degree and the War on Drugs in general.

John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic policy advisor, admitted in a 1994 interview:

“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities […] Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

America’s disdain for marijuana is rooted in this definition and ancient assumptions of how the drug works. As we now know, cannabis does not fit in the Schedule I categories, yet people of colour, particularly Black men, still face the harsh impacts of prohibition laws from over 40 years ago.

Race and drugs in America

It is clear that an intentional association between people of colour and drugs was established in the War on Drugs, but sadly this prejudiced view is still present in discourses surrounding drugs to this day.

In America, someone is arrested for drug possession every 25 seconds, and around one-fifth of the prison population is serving time for drug-related arrests and charges. Of this, some 30% are Black Americans, who are 4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession or consumption than a white user or dealer.

In fact, 70% of people convicted on charges with a minimum sentence are people of colour, and a black defendant is twice as likely to be prosecuted with a mandatory minimum sentence in comparison to a white defendant up on the same charges.

Even with legalisation in some US states, such as California, most inmates with drug charges remain in prison. However, more wealthy, white Americans and large tobacco companies are taking over the industry, while ignoring the harsh and violent history from the black market days. 

In the Netflix documentary series The Business of Drugs, Wanda James, CEO of Simply Pure – the first black-owned legal dispensary, discusses how she felt it was “wrong that in 2018, less than 1% of dispensary owners happened to be black.”

The disproportionate arrest and charge rate for people of colour in America is undeniable, and the MORE Act’s acknowledgement of this will hopefully force change not only in the judicial system, but in people’s unconscious biases too.

What could this mean for the future of America?

Over the last decade, some more progressive countries and states in the US began on the route to decriminalisation – such as Portugal, California, and Colorado – potentially acting as the blueprint for future America.

Portugal was one of the first countries in the world to decriminalise drug possession and consumption for all illegal substances in 2001. This came after the country had been crippled by a drug crisis that lasted over 40 years, which was mainly fuelled by opioid addiction.  

After decriminalising all illicit drugs, Portugal saw an incredible drop in drug use, overdose and incarceration rates, with overdose deaths dropping from 369 in 1999 to 30 in 2016 and drug-related incarceration cases dropping from 3863 to 1140 in 2017.

Portugal’s approach to addiction and rehabilitation explains this vast improvement, as its government allocated more funding to treatment and prevention programmes, changing the conversation around drug use to focus on health rather than law.

While the country hasn’t completely eradicated its drug problem, it is clear that decriminalisation has had an overwhelmingly positive impact that has only grown over the years.

This, and the many other positive case studies of decriminalisation, could certainly have helped the Senate’s decision to move forward with the bill. And while there has been some backlash, mostly from Republican members, it seems that the US is finally stripping themselves of these ‘no-tolerance’ attitudes, realising that they only cause more harm to users.

There are still a few obstacles to face, as the Senate runoff elections will ultimately decide the majority in the House, and whether this bill will continue to be integrated into federal law.