Sorry, Drug Legalization Doesn’t Solve Racism

Marijuana prohibition has been a massive scourge on black communities. And people are right to celebrate the end of this particular form of institutionalized racism. But we are hardly out of the woods yet. As Kelli Gulite points out for Thoughts on Liberty, the ramifications of the drug war on black communities are sure to last long after prohibition ends. Just as the impact of redlining on black wealth accumulation is felt to this day, so will the impact of systematic harassment, alienation from police protection, and criminal records continue to oppress black communities going forward.

What Gulite’s piece forces us to recon with is that the narrative that there is no culture problem, only bad laws, is fundamentally flawed. Laws originate from culture. There is no way a post-racial society would dream up, or tolerate, a racistly-prosecuted war on drugs. It is an affront, a moral outrage. The foundation upon which it is built and the legs it has stood upon are racism.

Laws are clearer than culture. The drug war isn’t working. End it. Culture is sticky. How do you fight an idea? How do you fight a tangle of interconnected, yet sometimes contradictory ideas? These ideas include the concept that black communities are poor because of fatherlessness. And that they’re fatherless because of welfare, or feminism. Not because, for example, black communities have been purposefully excluded from the single biggest driver of middle-class wealth-creation in American history — homeownership. Or because fatherhood is difficult when you’re incarcerated, and one in three black men have been in prison, the vast majority for non-violent drug offenses. And fatherhood, and wealth creation, are also difficult when you have a criminal record. Or that education is absolutely required for entrance into the American middle class, but the public education monopoly horrifically fails black students particularly.

Sure, ending the drug war and breaking the public education monopoly and having stopped redlining (right in time for homeownership to stop being a wealth-creation vehicle) will help. But we’re already erecting a new set of racially biased hurdles to keep black people from competing on equal footing.

For instance, Colorado is requiring criminal background checks with the purpose of excluding anyone with a Controlled Substance Felony Conviction from being licensed to sell marijuana. As the drug war has saddled the black community with a disproportionate number of drug convictions, this will unfairly exclude blacks from the legal drug trade.

Now of course it’s hard to know how many blacks this will impact. Part of the reason blacks dominated the drug trade isn’t so much that black people love drugs. Their marijuana usage rates are nearly indistinguishable from whites’. Rather black exclusion from white market occupations have pushed black Americans into black markets. The same was true during alcohol prohibition. Recent immigrant communities, which also endured systematic exclusion from white-market employment, comprised organized crime, running the speakeasies and dominating illegal hooch sales.

Sure, fewer and smaller black markets is a good thing. But we also have to work to end race-based discrimination. Repealing certain laws isn’t enough. Racism seeds and fertilizes laws which have a disproportionate impact on particular communities. To pretend that repealing a law either fixes the problems which systematic harassment, alienation from police protection, and criminal records have created, or will prevent problems in our culture from germinating new ways to oppress communities of color is absurd. Sure, repealing laws is easier than fixing culture, and cutting the grass is easier than killing weeds.


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Cathy Reisenwitz is an Editor at Young Voices and a D.C.-based writer and political commentator. She is Editor-in-Chief of Sex and the State and a columnist at and writer for Bitcoin Magazine. Her writing has appeared in The Week, Forbes, the Chicago Tribune, The Daily Beast, VICE Motherboard, Reason magazine, Talking Points Memo and other publications and she has appeared on Fox News and Al Jazeera America. She serves on the Board of Advisors for the Center for a Stateless Society.

2 thoughts on “Sorry, Drug Legalization Doesn’t Solve Racism

  • August 7, 2014 at 1:43 pm

    Your contention that blacks have been excluded from homeownership because of racism is just not true. Asians get approved for mortgages at a higher rate than white, but that doesn’t mean whites are discriminated against. And when banks were finally allowed to merge a few decades ago, one of the big factors that decided whether or not they could merge was whether they were a “good community citizen,” which was just code for giving mortgages to minorities. And the FHA, Fannie and Freddie, and the “Community Re-investment Act” all made it easier for people who normally didn’t qualify for loans to get them.

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