Leaf Law: Legal Woes Before Legalization

By Michael Giotis

Recent headlines from around the world have been chilling. To paraphrase: “Man to Die for Smuggling 2 Pounds of Cannabis in His Trunk.” “Mother of 9 Sentenced to Death for Meth.” “6000+ People Killed by Police in 5 Year War on Drugs.”

It sure is easy to look “over there” and say “Wow, how could they be so cruel.” Fortunately, drug enforcement never reached that level of violence here in the States. But let’s look at what costs it did have.

As reported to the Washington Post, in California alone nearly 500,000 people were arrested for pot in the 10 years prior to legalization. That’s right, “CA DAs Go Wild.” Again, that’s paraphrased.

As a native Californian who has lived during the decriminalization—and now legalization—era, it’s nearly impossible to imagine that teenage lives have been regularly disrupted with jail sentences for a roach in an ashtray or even a cannabis plant seed found under a car seat—true story outta New Jersey, by the way. Of course, the police must pull a person over, or enter and search a home, in order to find anything. These searches are much more likely to occur for Black and Brown Americans. 

Once a young person enters the criminal justice system, they are more likely to return to jail. Even in California. From that cycle, it becomes harder than it should be to get a good job. Already coming from underserved neighborhoods, these victims—via perpetration—often find the best way to earn good money and take care of their families is to sell drugs. Reset, replay.

Since legalization, thousands of Sonoma County community members have been released from jail or are in the process of having their convictions dismissed for possession and related convictions. As a society we have begun to see the damage that was done by criminalizing a plant that makes people feel good.

This legacy of criminalization continues to have effects on targeted populations. For example, Black folks make up 6% of the California population, but represent 25% of those incarcerated for cannabis convictions.

We should all contemplate these historical impacts of chemical-classification policies as we finish our caffeine drinks or sip our alcoholic beverages to take the edge off. And let us not forget to take our pills.

Correction: The phrase “military grade weed” recently appeared in this column. The writer meant to say “weapons grade,” a play on the anthrax phrase from the ’00s. The writer would not want to imply any cannabis use in the military, despite copious first-hand accounts to the contrary.
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