Cannabis may be legalized, but criminal justice reform is still needed

Illustration by Lauren Johnson

Rachel Spiller, Contributing Writer

The legalization of cannabis is exciting for many Virginians. But how are we to celebrate when there are people who will remain behind bars for the crime? 

The issue lies in the history of racism in the U.S. incarceration system, an institution that has been flawed since the launching of the war on drugs in the 1970s.  

The legalization of recreational marijuana is officially underway in Virginia, making it the 16th state to take the step forward. In July, marijuana was decriminalized, being reduced from a felony charge to a small fine of $25 for those in possession of less than an ounce. The movement continued later in that year to legalize the drug altogether; a long-awaited and overdue reform for the commonwealth.

On April 21, Gov. Ralph Northam signed a bill that allows adults 21 and older to legally possess up to an ounce of cannabis and to grow up to four plants per household, starting July 1. Amid the great news of something that contributes to a more socially accepting society, there are many questions to be raised about the new laws in place. 

According to an article from Virginia Mercury, those incarcerated on marijuana charges will remain behind bars despite the drug’s legalization, which seems far from reasonable. 

The history behind the criminalization of marijuana dates back nearly 100 years and can be used to explain why the U.S. currently holds the title as the most incarcerated country worldwide. 

In 2018, more than 28,000 people were sentenced to time behind bars for cannabis offenses, according to the Virginia State Police annual crime report. More than half of those arrests were Black Americans, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. This is a tiring trend that we have seen for nearly 50 years since the administration of former President Richard Nixon.

In 1971, Nixon declared a war on drugs, stating the No. 1 enemy to the U.S. was drug abuse. This led to the forming of the Drug Enforcement Administration, which increased the presence of government agents in minority communities and allowed for new methods of criminalization such as no-knock warrants and mandatory sentencing. 

Nixon’s launch of the war on drugs disproportionately affected minority communities. It has prompted a 500% increase in incarceration rates within the last 40 years with the stricter drug policies in place, while the overall population increased only 51% since 1974, according to Politifact

Now, with more than 2 million people behind bars, our nation suffers a great tragedy. 

Contrary to popular belief, the war on drugs was never about the concern of the American people and drug abuse. It has always been a matter of control in the eyes of those in political power. 

Since 1970, the U.S. has felt the repercussions of the needless drug war deeply, seeing our law enforcement discriminate heavily against minorities, watching the unraveling of the American justice system and negatively impacting the lives of millions of people. 

Although we are no longer living in the 1970s, the effects of the implementations set by Nixon and former President Ronald Reagan are still visible today. Statistics from the ACLU show that in 2018, more arrests were made for the possession of marijuana than any other drug class. Although white people are just as likely to use and possess marijuana at the same rate as Black Americans, there is a significant difference in the rates of those arrested for petty crime.

America’s approach on incarceration has been influenced by harsh sentencing, racial bias and a lack of public safety. There is no reason that one racial group should be affected more than another. In the 21st century, it is hard to believe that this still has to be stated. Our country has seen the impacts of racial disparities for far too long, and it is well past time for them to be addressed and diminished in today’s society. 

While Virginia has taken a step in the right direction by legalizing cannabis, the next steps in handling those incarcerated for marijuana charges will be the most important in the near future. 

The time is now for Virginia to end a racially motivated war on the people. We must move to reform our criminal justice system with the same urgency with which we are reforming drug policy. 

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