Like many California residents in November of 2016, I was happy to hear that marijuana would finally be legalized in early 2017. Around the same time, I, like many other Americans, felt demoralized following the news of the concurrent presidential election. Although Trump’s victory seemed imminent, I still could not help but feel discouraged watching his poll numbers climb higher and higher throughout the course of the night. The next morning, alongside a notification that Trump had won the presidency, I awoke to a text message from a friend saying, “Well, at least weed is legal.”
I could not help but agree. I was happy for this small victory against the unjust and prolonged Reagan-era war on drugs. The disproportionate number of Black and brown humans who are not only fined, but also sent to jail for minor drug offenses exemplifies the legacy of slavery and the racial prejudice still rampant in our country. The decriminalization of an activity that has sent a few friends and multiple acquaintances to jail, for seemingly no justifiable reason, lightened my mood and gave me a sense of hope.
Two years after the legalization of marijuana in California, and six years after its legalization in Colorado and Washington state, the legal marijuana business is booming. However, the effects of marijuana legalization are not exclusively beneficial. For example, although the net number of arrests for drug-related crimes has decreased, drug-related arrests for people of color have increased. The prevalence of drug-related violence in border states continues to decline, but cartels, receiving less and less business, have begun to resort to other crimes to produce profit. Additionally, since marijuana is not legal at a federal level, it is difficult for organizations to garner funding to test the drug. As of today, there are no standard, sustainable ways to commercially grow marijuana without substantial environmental consequences. Finally, without federal oversight, the growing cannabis business threatens to conform to the conventions of corrupt, corporate agribusiness.
At first glance, it seems legal cannabis really marks the beginning of the end for the war on drugs. In Colorado between 2012 and 2015, arrests for cannabis possession dropped 88 percent (Colorlines, “Racial Disparities Persist Despite Marijuana Legalization Measures,” 01.23.2018). Unfortunately, this statistic does not represent the increased number of Black and brown humans arrested on drug charges in Colorado during the same time period. A 2016 study by the Colorado
Health Department shows a drop in the drug-related arrests of white teens, yet a rise in cannabis-related imprisonments of Hispanic teens by 20 percent and Black teens by 50 percent, although young people use the drug at similar rates.
This evidence shows that, despite weed’s legalization, people of color continue to be profiled by law enforcement and arrested for petty drug-related crimes, in addition to receiving much higher fines and sentences than white people. It was naïve of us to have thought the decriminalization of marijuana would make a substantial difference. Despite what is legal and what is illegal, law enforcement always finds excuses to arrest people of color at a much higher rate than white people. To combat this, some states have begun to allocate tax dollars from the marijuana business for racial reparations. For example, California legislation promises $10 million each year to nonprofits serving communities historically affected by racial profiling and drug-related arrests. This amount is expected to increase by an additional $10 million annually until 2022. Although a step in the right direction, decriminalization and reparations are not enough if law enforcement simply finds other excuses to justify the disproportionate number of arrests of people of color. For drug-legalization measures to actually have an effect in decreasing the number of Black and brown people unjustly arrested for drug-related crimes, police departments must fundamentally alter their beliefs, prejudices and practices.
The legalization of marijuana also came with an implicit promise to lessen drug-related criminal activity. Between 1994 and 2012, robbery in border states did drop by 19 percent (The Guardian, “Legal marijuana cuts violence says US study, as medical use laws see crime fall,” 01.13.2018). Murder decreased by 10 percent, and homicides directly related to drug trafficking declined a staggering 41 percent. Yet, after the legalization of cannabis in several states, drug cartels must now compete with local pot farmers. Marijuana dominates the illegal drug trafficking industry, and most marijuana, along with cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines, consumed in the United States comes from Mexico. Due to marijuana legalization in some states, drug cartels are receiving less and less business. In turn, cartels are turning toward human trafficking and kidnapping to bolster lost funds.
Cartels are also beginning to grow marijuana in cannabis-legal states, particularly in the national forests of California (SF Chronicle, “Illegal pot grows spread deadly pesticides, other hazards, despite change in law,” 05.29.2018). Officials estimate that there are at least 400 sites of illegal marijuana growth hidden in the 20 million acres of California’s national forests. According to U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott, cartel growers poison wildlife and drain forests of their already scarce water supply. Illegal growers clear trees, remove native plants, cause erosion, shoot deer and other wildlife, litter and spread human waste.
Additionally, cartels use illegal and highly toxic insecticides. The federally restricted insecticide carbofuran, a teaspoon of which could kill a 60-pound African lion, has been found in trace amounts in dead wildlife, creeks and runoff in California. In addition to wreaking havoc on California flora and fauna, cartel members have attacked hikers and law enforcement alike with booby traps and weapons. Reportedly, illegal growers have hung fish hooks from trees to prevent passers-by from entering illegal growth sites and have threatened and chased away hikers with knives and guns. In 2017, raids within California national parks found 1.4 million illegally grown cannabis plants, a much higher number than was found before the legalization of marijuana.
Harmful and illegal pesticides are not only used by illegal growers, but also by licensed growers (The Atlantic, “The Wild West of Marijuana Pesticides,” 08.31.2015). Although weed is legal in several states, the Drug Enforcement Agency labels marijuana as a Schedule One drug, a classification otherwise reserved for the most dangerous drugs, including ecstasy and heroin. Since marijuana is federally illegal, the Environmental Protection Agency, which is tasked with approving specific pesticides for specific crops, cannot legally approve a pesticide for the use of marijuana growth. Due to this loophole, no approved pesticide exists within cannabis-legal states. Some states attempt to bypass federal approval by providing information on which pesticides are best for marijuana growers. However, due to the low toxicity of these recommended pesticides, such as petroleum oil, soap and sulfur, most are minimally effective.
As a result, many growers turn to the illegal use of more harmful pesticides and chemicals. A study by The Oregonian found that medical marijuana in dispensaries labeled as pesticide-free actually contained traces of household roach killer, among other toxic chemicals. In response, the Cannabis Safety Institute released a statement claiming that many marijuana products contain much greater amounts of pesticides than is safe in edible or smokable products. This unhealthy amount of pesticides is particularly high in edibles, some of which contain hundreds of parts per million of toxic chemicals. However, since marijuana is not federally legal, it is difficult to receive funding to test the effects of pesticides not only on consumers, but on growers as well.
Since its legalization is so recent, most marijuana farming remains small-scale (Humboldt State University Department of Anthropology, “America’s Largest Cannabis Labor Market,” 2016). However, many voice concerns that, with the legalization of marijuana, cannabis production will soon model corporate agribusiness. Historically, young people with little education make up the bulk of farm workers, along with a substantial population of migrant workers. Since a majority of cannabis businesses remain family-owned, local residents are often the sources of small-scale labor, reducing the amount of labor exploitation and providing local working families with a stable income. Additionally, most earnings are spent within the community, which contributes to the multiplier effect and in turn supports other local businesses. Due to the growing numbers of these types of pot farmers, adequate working conditions and wages are reported in the legal marijuana growing business.
The marijuana industry is undoubtedly growing everyday. Global spending on legal cannabis is expected to reach $57 billion annually by 2027 (Forbes, “Legal Cannabis Industry Poised for Big Growth, In North America And Around The World,” 03.01.2018). If left unregulated, large-scale and commercial marijuana production could exploit labor, pay low wages and increase income inequality, as large-scale agribusiness has done in the past and continues to do today.
Today, as much as 60 percent of the country believes that recreational marijuana should be legal, although only eight states and Washington, D.C., have legalized the recreational use of marijuana (Time, “U.S. Tried Decriminalizing Pot Before. Here’s Why It Didn’t Work,” 12.07.2017). The legalization of marijuana symbolizes progress in the decriminalization movement and works to de-stigmatize the use of natural drugs for medical and recreational purposes. Policymakers should not take the drug’s legalization lightly, especially due to its popularity. Since marijuana is indeed legal in some states, the federal government must take measures to further research the drug. In addition, the legalization of marijuana cannot be thought of as a singular remedy for ending racial profiling, or for curbing drug-related violent crime.
Right now, the establishment threatens to use a drug that has so long symbolized anti-corporate sentiment for its own gain. Hopefully, however, the impacts of marijuana legalization will allow people to recognize the roots of racial injustice and criminal activity in America, giving Americans a chance to reform agribusiness and to regulate pot production in a sustainable and non-exploitative way.