Here’s what marijuana legalization would mean for those already convicted of related crimes
Full marijuana legalization is on the table in California, Arkansas, Nevada, Arizona, and Massachusetts, and polls show that it has a decent chance of passing in each. While this is exciting news for advocates who have long called for an end to the racially motivated War on Drugs and mass incarceration, this ultimately raises the question of what will happen to those already convicted of marijuana charges if it’s legalized?
At this point it’s clear the ban on the drug was meant to stigmatize its predominantly African-American users, and a top adviser of the Nixon administration went so far as to admit that the goal of the War on Drugs was to further suppress an already marginalized group. Since the initiation of the “war,” America has seen a 500 percent increase in incarceration, which, as New Jersey Senator Cory Booker accurately pointed out in July, disproportionately affects poor people and minorities. Legalizing marijuana and regulating it in the same way we do alcohol and tobacco obviously wouldn’t fix everything, but it would be the first step toward decreasing America’s prison population.
In the state of California alone, The Orange County Register notes that 6,000 people are behind bars for crimes related to marijuana, some in federal prison at the highest level alongside violent offenders. The passage of Prop 64, which would recreationally legalize marijuana for citizens 21 years old and over, would potentially reduce prison sentences and clear old criminal records related to marijuana, although it is not clear if Prop 64 would result in those incarcerated being automatically released.
Across the nation, roughly one million people convicted of marijuana-related misdemeanors and felonies could petition to have their records changed or cleared through passage of the pending recreational marijuana legalization ballot initiatives, according to estimates by the Drug Policy Alliance.
In the state of Colorado, where marijuana has been fully legal since 2012, funding raised from taxing the drug has gone toward various education and public health initiatives. In the states that could legalize marijuana this Election Day, the tax money could be invested in offering resources for former convicts.
Ultimately, among the most troubling aspects of the dialogue around marijuana legalization is that those who are most affected by it are politically excluded. Nonviolent felons and former inmates charged with marijuana-related crimes are stripped of their voting rights and will not be able to vote on the issue of marijuana legalization, and those still incarcerated over drug crimes certainly won’t be able to politically express themselves.
Drug convictions on an individual’s record have served to marginalize those affected by the War on Drugs long after they serve their time. Individuals are often forced to plead guilty if they can’t afford lawyers and are offered plea bargains, as Michelle Alexander notes in The New Jim Crow. As felons, they struggle to find jobs and are denied public housing and welfare.
The legalization of marijuana, at the very least, would offer individuals with marijuana convictions a second chance by allowing them to clear their records.