If Weed Is Legal, Why Are So Many People Still Being Arrested And Locked Up For It?

This article was originally published on Weedmaps, and appears here with permission.

While Michigan dispensaries collectively bring in millions of dollars every month, Michael Thompson is serving a de facto life sentence in the same state for the very same reason — selling cannabis. 

As the country grapples with both a global pandemic and nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism, cannabis remains at the forefront of the cultural and political conversation. Cannabis was deemed an essential business by nearly all states with a medical or adult-use market during COVID-19, yet its criminalization has resulted in the arrests of millions of Americans, with Black individuals arrested at significantly higher rates than their white counterparts. 

public opinion of legalizing marijuana graphGraphic: Jaclyn Sears

The majority of the population reside in states with legalized medical or adult-use cannabis, and over two-thirds of Americans support legalization. We are leaps and bounds away from the days of reefer madness and Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No campaign, yet thousands of people are currently sitting in jail or prison for cannabis-related offenses, and over 660,000 people were arrested for cannabis in 2018 alone.

Legal cannabis spending in the United States is predicted to reach over $16 billion in 2020, and the industry is responsible for the creation of nearly 340,000 jobs. If cannabis is a legal, multi-billion dollar industry, and even regarded as an essential business alongside pharmacies and grocery stores, then why are so many people still being arrested and locked up for it? Why are some allowed to profit off the industry while Michael Thompson is regarded as a criminal who deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison?

The simple answer is that cannabis is still federally illegal and many states have not passed decriminalization laws. There is also no federal law that requires the clearing of records of those convicted of something that is no longer a crime, otherwise known as retroactive ameliorative relief. However, there is nothing simple about the United States criminal justice system and the answer is much more complicated.

How did we even get to this point? 

A very brief history of the War on Drugs and cannabis criminalization

While anti-drug policies can be traced back to the early 20th century, the War on Drugs that contributed to the current state of mass incarceration in the United States began in the 1970s under the Nixon administration. In 1971, President Nixon declared drugs to be “public enemy number one,” setting the stage for a new era of tough-on-crime drug policies. While the demonization of drugs and drug users began with …

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