Members of a NAACP panel on legalizing marijuana said Tuesday that reforming penalties for marijuana possession is a matter of racial justice.
Richard Smith, a member of the NAACP board of directors and a county jail warden in New Jersey, is familiar with the impact of laws criminalizing marijuana and said they disproportionately affect black and Latino people.
In New Jersey, Smith said, someone is arrested for a marijuana offense every 22 minutes, and for minorities, the likelihood of being arrested on such a charge is three to four times higher.
He said that a marijuana arrest can result in a cascade of consequences, including time spent in jail, loss of employment, driver’s license suspension, criminal records, loss of student financial aid, and a ban from public housing.
“These [are] petty arrests [the criminal justice system] can build on top of,” Smith said during the NAACP’s 109th annual convention. “It is a social justice issue, it is a civil rights issue. We have to change this. It is devastating our communities.”
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Another panelist, San Antonio rapper Kyle Lee, said he has personal experience with what he believes to be unjust laws that enforce harsh penalties for using marijuana. Lee has performed at venues throughout the Texas and said he has witnessed someone getting arrested for possession of a single joint.
“[That person’s] not a threat to anybody, and I don’t think that I’ve ever really heard of anybody doing anything crazy on marijuana,” Lee said. “[Law enforcement authorities] shouldn’t try to search a person’s car, get that car towed, take [the person] to jail, do all this silly stuff for just a joint.”
Lee acknowledged that enforcing criminal penalties for possession of larger quantities of marijuana can be justified.
“Now if you catch someone with 100 bricks in their car, that is kind of different,” he said. “… That’s like doing too much.”
Several states have taken action in recent years to alter their marijuana laws to allow for greater recreational and medicinal use while also imposing regulations. Colorado, California, Washington, Oregon, and a few other states have legalized recreational and medicinal use, and 30 states have some form of legalized cannabis use for medicinal purposes.
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Texas lawmakers in 2015 passed the Texas Compassionate Use Act, which narrowly legalized the sale of cannabis oil solely to epilepsy patients whose symptoms have not responded to other treatments.
Smith said that legalizing marijuana could allow for greater regulation and safer consumption habits.
The change also could appeal to states that see legalization of marijuana as an opportunity to bring in increased tax revenues. In New Jersey, reports estimate that the legalization of marijuana could generate an additional $300 million for the state.
But Smith said he is wary of state politicians citing social justice as a mere marketing slogan when real social justice reform is not part of the legislation.
“[They] now want to go around and use [blacks and Latinos] as the poster child and use it as the reason to be legal,” Smith said. “Automatic expungement, access to the marketplace, reinvestment in our inner cities … all of that has to be part of the [marijuana legalization] legislation.”
A discussion about how to ensure racial justice with legalization is essential, panelist Dasheeda Dawson said.
Dawson, who leads a marketing and consulting firm focused on the cannabis industry, said even if laws change, a stigma can still exist in connection to marijuana.
“I’m originally from Brooklyn … and every day in Brooklyn, young black and Hispanic males primarily are targeted despite a decriminalized bill,” Dawson said. “The law can be changed, but habits don’t necessarily change without retraining or re-education.”