on 420, let’s remember those affected most by the war on drugs

April 20, 2018
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By Arielle Gray / AFROPUNK contributor

The story of how 420 came to be has become somewhat of a legend. In 1971, 5 high school students went on a search for weed using a grower’s crudely drawn map. They didn’t find the bud but developed a code between themselves to talk about the stash without alerting others. And so (in so many words) 420 was born.

Over the years, 420 has become a massive counterculture holiday, an international phenomenon that brings Marijuana smokers from all over the world together in the interest of one mission- enjoying weed and spreading that joy to others. Since 1971, it’s grown to encapsulate a lot of what Marijuana culture is about. It’s a day of celebration, of calls to end prohibition and of course, it’s a day to make money off of avid weed smokers. In fact, most weed businesses see their revenue increase at the beginning of 420 week.

Back in college, 420 was the day we all looked forward to, when we would take a blanket down to the Boston Commons and sneak blunts as troopers atop horses trekked by. Now, as the United States inches closer and closer to Marijuana legalization, I’m keenly aware of how empty this holiday is, especially to those serving time for Marijuana related offenses. As the world celebrates the wonders of the plant outside, there’re still people living without full access to freedom because of this.

In 2016, over 650,000 people were arrested for a marijuana law violation and of those arrests, over 80% of those were possession only cases. That year, arrests for Marijuana possession far exceeded arrests made for violent crimes. The majority of people involved in these arrests were Black. When we look at who the accused are in our nation’s criminal courts, they aren’t rapists or thieves or murderers. They’re people accused of misdemeanor charges like marijuana possession. Not all arrests lead to jail time, but the offense has far reaching consequences and can impede getting a job or bank loans, housing and even risk student loans, if the defendant is enrolled in or is going to college. “These “collateral consequences” of a misdemeanor conviction are often more dire than any direct criminal penalty”.

This trend is nothing new. In the 1930’s, claims were made about marijuana’s ability to “cause men of color to become violent and solicit sex from white women”. This imagery became the backdrop for the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 which effectively banned its use and sales. Over next 50 years, marijuana continued to be one of the most prosecuted drugs in the country. This didn’t change at the turn of the century. As Michelle Alexander points out in her book The New Jim Crow, marijuana related offenses accounted for almost 80% of the new growth in drug arrests in the 90s. Almost 90% of those arrested were Black or Latinx people. Our country has a keen way of dehumanizing those who move through the bowels of it’s court system and has used Marijuana prohibition to intentionally target black and brown bodies.

Activists have had to fight lawmakers to ensure inclusive language when it comes to the participation of those with drug offenses in the burgeoning legal Marijuana market. Most recently in Boston, the Cannabis Control Commission voted 3–2 to bar those convicted of drug trafficking (excluding marijuana) from entering the new industry. Member Shaleen Title and Commissioner Chair Steve Hoffman disagreed, “saying it was unfair to prohibit someone who had paid their debt to society from finding work in the new industry”. Limiting access to job opportunities for former convicts is far more detrimental than its benefits- studies show that increases in employment and job opportunities can have positive impacts on crime and of course, poverty.

When we inspect the current Marijuana movement and what it looks like, it still disenfranchises black and brown bodies. Colorado, one of the first states to legalize Marijuana, was still disproportionately locking up black kids for marijuana possession in 2016. Places like Boston have put into place additional programs to encourage industry participation by people in areas affected by the War on Drugs but there are still a number of other barriers that may impact that participation. When the median income of a white family in America is 13x that of a black family, its not hard to see why participation in an industry, where getting a license just to operate can cost thousands of dollars, is difficult for Blacks and Latinx.

Looking at the origins of 420 and the story of 5 white high school boys living in California, one of whose father was a narcotics agent for the California Department of Justice, we have to really wonder, who does 420 serve? Traditionally, it hasn’t served us simply because our bodies are more at risk when we’re even attached the drug. But we can make it serve us.

As Marijuana becomes legalized across the country, we need to remember how prohibition continues to impact the lives of people in our communities. We must push for the industry to allow full participation for former drug offenders. We must push for a federal level expungement of marijuana cases. And we must push to make sure that an industry built off of our backs directly benefits us.



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