Claire Nelson considers the real reasons behind marijuana prohibition.

Election day in America wasn’t only about the president. Washington and Colorado became the first two states to legalize recreational use of marijuana. Iowa and Maine are in the works to follow. Interestingly, marijuana is still an illegal drug under federal law, meaning the federal government is still capable of arresting any number of substance-holding citizens in Washington and Colorado, regardless of the state law. While it is unlikely that the DEA will suddenly charge through Colorado and Washington in search of minor possession charges, the conflicting laws will need to be addressed.

Marijuana legalization has come under scrutiny in recent years, as more and more states pass medical marijuana laws and the war on drugs continues. Many worry about the drug’s effects on teenagers, about impaired driving, and the issues of testing for marijuana intoxication, which are not as simple as alcohol. There is no way to tell if someone is currently high with a test, only if they have ingested marijuana in the past month. Yet I find these worries to be largely hypocritical and ignorant of the racist roots of marijuana prohibition.

How does a drug with no danger of fatality or violent behavior become so demonised? How can we seriously criminalise marijuana while alcohol remains socially and legally acceptable, though according to the WHO, it is responsible for 2.5 million deaths per year? The answer is a combination of misinformation from the general public and manipulation from the police and government.

“”Marijuana arrests are the best and easiest way currently available to acquire data on young people, especially black and latino youth, who have not previously been entered into the criminal-justice databases,” said Harry Levine of Queens College, who conducted a 2007 study of marijuana use and arrest patterns. The study found that while a higher percentage of whites smoke pot over blacks and hispanics, in New York blacks are arrested 5 times more often than whites for marijuana related charges, while Hispanics are arrested 3 times more often. Using marijuana charges simply to gain database information is highly unethical. It is openly admitting that marijuana is not where the problem is.

From 1996-2007, 52% of low-grade marijuana arrests in New York City were African-American, though during that period only about a quarter of the city’s population was black. In comparison, whites accounted for 15% of marijuana related arrests though they accounted for 36% of the population. The same sorts of numbers show up in the stop-and-frisks in New York. Between 2004 through 2007, police made 1,692,488 stops due to allegedly suspicious behavior. Of those stopped, 51% were black, 29% Latino, and 10% white. 88% of those stopped had no charges pressed.

So maybe Washington and Colorado have it right. As Timothy Egan of The New York Times wrote in reference to the recent fatalities stemming from nutritional supplements and energy drinks, “It’s hard to make a case for fairness when one person’s method of relaxation is cause for arrest while another’s lands him on a Monday night football ad.” I believe that the demonisation of marijuana is coming to an end, that probably the most dangerous thing about weed is that it is illegal. From there stems black market dealings, gang violence especially in Mexico, and racial profiling in arrests.


Claire Nelson


Image by Chmee2

To look at the study cited in this article, see