The Inequality Of Smoking Weed

It's no secret many presidential candidates in both parties have experimented with marijuana. During the first Democratic primary debate last night, moderator Anderson Cooper didn't feel even a little compelled to pretend this wasn't the case, lightheartedly leading into the topic of marijuana legalization by stating: "Some of the candidates have tried marijuana, as have pretty much probably everybody in this room." Cooper implied all candidates on stage had at some point dabbled with the drug, although frontrunner Hillary Clinton denied experimenting with weed in her college years in the 1960s (which happens to be when the drug was on the rise in American popular culture). At the most recent GOP primary debate, Jeb Bush candidly admitted to experimenting with marijuana "40 years ago," and prior to the debate, fellow GOP candidates Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio, all essentially confessed to similar experiences.

These candidates have been relatively open about their past usage of the drug. Sure, Bush, Cruz, Paul, and Rubio referred to their marijuana use as mistakes, but none of them appear to have felt pressured to hide or deny this aspect of their pasts. Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders didn't even feel the need to refer to his use of marijuana as a mistake, simply and shamelessly stating that "it didn't quite work for [him]" in an interview with Yahoo News' Katie Couric in July. Rather than receive criticism, the candidates' usage of marijuana has been spun in almost comedic light, and even served to humanize them.

Nonetheless, a societal stigma against most other recreational users of marijuana arguably remains, casting marijuana users who aren't major presidential candidates as unprofessional or even dangerous, and in many cases, resulting in arrests and jail time. This raises the question of why others face criticism for marijuana use, while affluent white politicians don't seem to.

Candidates' usage of marijuana might be lightly received by Americans and the media, but shocking national rates of arrest for marijuana possession indicate that the stigma against the drug persists, and has powerfully adverse effects on those who lack the racial and socioeconomic privilege of the wealthy and influential. In 2012, for an estimated 1,552,432 Americans, according to US News, arrested for marijuana usage and/or possession, the act didn't result in the same good-humored consequences that it arguably did for presidential candidates.

Among the many marijuana-related arrests made across the nation, sharp disparities appear among the racial groups and economic brackets affected. A comprehensive 2013 report by the ACLU proved that despite nearly equal rates of marijuana usage among black and white Americans, black people faced arrest for marijuana offenses at disproportionately higher rates than white people. In some counties, disparities such as as 10 to one existed. According to The New York Times, in 2010, nationally, "black Americans were nearly four times" more likely to face arrest for marijuana possession than their white counterparts, and in the states of Iowa, Illinois, and Minnesota, they were eight times more likely.


The disparity in arrests for marijuana use is by no means restricted to race. Rather, according to a report by the Drug Policy Alliance, the NYPD's marijuana-related arrests in 2013 also seemed largely affected by economic class. In the wealthier, white neighborhoods of Forest Hill in Queens and the Upper East Side in Manhattan, eight and 10 marijuana arrests were made for every 100,000 residents, respectively. In 2013, Forest Hills' median family income was $67,000 and the Upper East Side's median family income was $111,000. In the predominantly black and Latino New York neighborhoods of Washington Heights and East Harlem, where median family income falls at $34,000 and $28,000 respectively, 882 and 1128 marijuana-related arrests were made for every 100,000 residents. In plenty of cases, high rates of arrest for marijuana offenses in certain neighborhoods appear related to the neighborhood's median income.

Law enforcement against drug offenders ultimately tends to not only disproportionately persecute African Americans, Latinos, and poorer Americans, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, but also sentences them to longer prison time than their white counterparts.

Whether a former or current marijuana user faces criticism or even legal consequences seems largely affected by their race and socioeconomic status. For influential and reasonably wealthy white politicians, a personal history containing marijuana use appears to have none of the same consequences that, as the Atlantic points out, a low-wage person of color will face seeking employment or welfare.

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The marijuana stigma that disproportionately harms low-income racial minorities is ultimately rooted in history. In the 1980s, the "crack epidemic" first emerged, and with it the racist modern conception of "the ghetto." Crack cocaine and other illegal drugs from the Bahamas and Dominican Republic became widely dealt in African American neighborhoods, where historical disenfranchisement and economic inequality resulting from systemic racism left many with few options to make honest livings. Rampant drug-dealing in these areas often led to violent crime and death from overdose.

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, President George H.W. Bush responded by initiating a "War on Drugs" in low-income black neighborhoods, and as "hard drugs" became rarer, law enforcement increasingly cracked down on marijuana offenders. The late-1980s Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates stated his belief that “casual drug users should be taken out and shot,” and went on to establish a widespread drug education program. This resulted in not only the enduring, racially-charged stigma against some marijuana users, but also decades of mass incarceration, lack of funding for crucial medical research, and the reinforcement of structural racism in law enforcement.

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But despite the marijuana stigma's obvious role in law enforcement and employment practices, there's no denying that its place in society and popular culture has evolved dramatically. According to CNN, 58 percent of Americans currently support the legalization of marijuana, compared with 12 percent in 1969. And just last night at the Democratic debate, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, frontrunner Hillary Clinton's strongest challenger for the nomination, not only expressed support for ending prison sentences for marijuana users, but also for the legalization of marijuana. Although Clinton herself wasn't ready to come out unconditionally supporting the national legalization of the drug, she agreed emphatically with Sanders on ending the prison sentences for marijuana use and other nonviolent, low-level crime.

On some level, it's certainly disappointing that influential figures, which include leading presidential candidates and successful CEOs, business leaders, and socialites, can come forward as former or even current marijuana users without receiving the social or legal consequences of less-privileged users. That's not to say these influential figures should face the same consequences, but rather that we should reevaluate the way the less privileged are treated. This disparity reflects lingering racism and classism in society that it's time for us to evolve beyond. However, at the same time, perhaps our acceptance of presidential candidates' experiences with marijuana is a step in the right direction toward ultimately laying to rest the marijuana stigma as a whole.