The End of Marijuana Prohibition is Near. Jeff Sessions Let Out Its Dying Wail.
By Reggie Shuford, Executive Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania
On January 1, California became the latest and the most populous state to legalize marijuana use by adults, and on January 22, Vermont became the first state to legalize adult use of cannabis via legislation. Recreational use of marijuana is now legal in nine states and the District of Columbia. Twenty percent of Americans now live in a jurisdiction where adults can possess cannabis without fear of arrest, and there is legislative momentum for legalization in New Hampshire, Delaware, and New Jersey.
When U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed the Obama administration Department of Justice guidance advising federal prosecutors not to prosecute users and lawful sellers of marijuana in states that authorized medicinal or recreational use he let out prohibition’s dying wail.
Support for legalization continues to grow. This month, the Pew Research Center released survey data showing 61 percent of Americans now support an end to prohibition. That’s a four percent increase from Pew’s 2016 poll.
Similarly, a poll from Franklin and Marshall College in September showed 59 percent of Pennsylvanians believe marijuana should be legal. A year earlier, the same survey showed 40 percent support among Pennsylvanians.
Opposition to legalization is disappearing by the month.
In the midst of a serious epidemic of opioid use and overdoses, cannabis provides a safe, non-toxic alternative method of pain management. According to research published in the American Journal of Public Health in November, marijuana legalization has led to a decrease in deaths by opiate overdose in Colorado. In the two years after cannabis became available through retail sales, researchers found that opiate-related deaths decreased by six percent, reversing a 14-year trend.
When supporters of prohibition describe marijuana as a “gateway” drug, they are using the correct term but for the wrong reason. Marijuana is a gateway out of opiate addiction.
The government’s war on marijuana, which started in the 1930s and has accelerated in the last 40 years, has had devastating consequences. Despite municipal-level decriminalization, including an effort in that direction in Pittsburgh, and a pivot toward focusing on opioids, police continue to arrest more people for marijuana than for any other drug. According to data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting System, Pittsburgh police arrested 570 people for marijuana possession in the first nine months of 2017, which accounted for 47 percent of all drug possession arrests during that time. More people were arrested for marijuana possession in Pittsburgh from January to September last year than any other drug.
The war on marijuana disproportionately impacts people of color. Based on 2010 census data, Black people were 3.6 times more likely to be arrested in Pennsylvania in 2016 for marijuana possession than white people, despite surveys that consistently show that usage is the same across all races.
And it’s worse in Allegheny County, where African-Americans were nearly seven times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in 2016 than white people.
The collateral consequences of an arrest can be devastating, creating barriers to employment, housing, and education.
Thankfully, Americans increasingly recognize that reefer madness was a fool’s pursuit. We cannot undo the damage that prohibition has already wrought, but we can do better going forward. The legalization of cannabis is one piece of a larger puzzle of smart justice, a wave of criminal justice reform to end mass incarceration and usher in a better approach for the 21st century.
Attorney General Sessions has created an atmosphere of uncertainty for people who are following their state’s laws on medicinal and recreational cannabis, threatening the progress states have made toward reforming their criminal justice systems. But Sessions’ way of thinking is a relic of a bygone era. The states are ahead of him, and he and other politicians who think like him will be left behind.
Reggie Shuford is the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.