High Time: Why the United States Government Must Legalize Marijuana
In 2008, army veteran Derek Harris made a mistake. After over a decade of substance abuse problems following his return from Desert Storm, a United States military operation executed during the Gulf War, Harris accidentally sold .69 grams of marijuana to an undercover police officer — less than $30 worth of the plant-based substance.
In 2020, following new guidance from the Louisiana Supreme Court, the original district court responsible for sentencing Harris finally released him from prison.
Today, an ever-growing number of states are voting to decriminalize, legalize, and regulate marijuana in their jurisdictions. In fact, 19 states— as well as Washington, D.C., and Guam — already allow recreational use of the drug (at the time of writing this), and medical dispensaries are fast becoming a staple in many others. But marijuana is still criminal at a federal level, and the question posed by Harris’ case is arguably more important now than ever before: Why did a Black military veteran, found with less than a gram of a naturally occurring, dried plant on his person, spend 12 years in prison?
Our federal government still maintains that marijuana is a Schedule I substance, which the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) defines as “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse” — even despite recent and updated medical and psychological research showing several medicinal, safe benefits of occasional use of the substance. This classification is the direct result of the Nixon administration’s war on drugs, which the presidential office launched in the 1960s and which — spoiler alert! — is blatantly and observably racist policy designed to target left-leaning, minority communities across the country.
Despite Nixon’s personal involvement in the movement, he cannot truly be considered the father of the war on drugs. Harry Anslinger, the first-ever commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, designed and popularized the policy set through unapologetic deceit — making no effort whatsoever to mask his prejudice, he once told colleagues that “reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.” Anslinger fabricated myriad internal surveys and statistical reports to manipulate public opinion, using his position to loudly trumpet a fictitious association between marijuana use and violent behavior — “you smoke a joint and you’re likely to kill your brother” — and even went as far as to explicitly conflate drug use with music and race to further demonize specific American communities. “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S.,” Anslinger once said, “And most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos…their satanic music — jazz and swing — result from marijuana use.”
Emboldened by Nixon’s executive authority, the administration used legislation as means to a political end, crafting legislation not in the interest of a nation but in the interests of a campaign. Notorious Watergate scandal co-conspirator John Ehrlichman recently spoke candidly about these decisions, telling journalist Dan Baum:
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and Black people…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. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
This year, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) reported making 2,576 marijuana-related arrests in 2020 and sentencing just over 1,000 people federally for violating marijuana trafficking laws. It’s not good enough. It’s easy to point to new numbers shared by the DEA or DOJ and announce that federal convictions for marijuana-related activity are on the decline, but those statistics don’t even come close to telling the whole story.
If the United States federal government continues to classify marijuana as a Schedule I substance, more lives will be destroyed by racist, inequitable, and unjust policy. Beyond the economic implications of a failed war on drugs that has blown through billions of taxpayer dollars, our government’s treatment of marijuana as a dangerous criminal substance comes at personal costs for those arrested — often creating atrocious cascading consequences that, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “affect child custody determinations, eligibility for public housing and student financial aid, employment opportunities, immigration status, and more.” Harris’ story is an unfortunate one, but it in no way is unique.
It’s time to end Anslinger and Nixon’s legacy of racially biased, morally reprehensible marijuana policy. And the Biden administration can do it with the stroke of a pen.