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Marijuana legalization must make War on Drugs' victims whole before companies profit

For Amazon-owned Whole Foods to get the right to sell a single pot brownie, every non-violent marijuana-related conviction must be thrown out.
Image: Marijuana Dispensary, Oregon
A bud tender shows a top cannabis strain at Serra a dispensary in Portland, Ore, on Feb. 7, 2019.Richard Vogel / AP file

For years, the rich, white and powerful have demonized marijuana and those who smoke it, eat it or dribble CBD oil in their tea. They labeled it a “gateway drug”; limited research into its medicinal uses; designed and implemented policies that over-criminalized its possession (88 percent of marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010 were for possession, and marijuana represented 46 percent of all drug arrests in the United States); and disproportionately targeted black and brown people for arrest. Ronald Reagan fear mongered in 1980 that “marijuana — pot, grass, whatever you want to call it — is probably the most dangerous drug in the United States.” Now-former Attorney General Jeff Sessions said as recently as 2016 that “good people don't smoke marijuana.”

But these days, the rich white elite are planning to wildly capitalize on the psychoactive plant. (And I’m not just talking about former Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who declared himself “unalterably opposed” to legalization in 2011 only to join the board of a marijuana company in 2018.)

“If cannabis is ever passed in Texas, chances are good that grocery stores will be selling that too,” Whole Foods CEO, John Mackey said during a conversation hosted by The Texas Tribune recently.

Well, before that happens — before Amazon-owned Whole Foods and Trader Joe's and all manner of opulent, upscale grocers start selling pot brownies to their deep-pocketed patrons — every non-violent marijuana-related conviction should be expunged, and those still incarcerated for marijuana crimes should be immediately released. Before a single Wall Street-loving yacht owner makes another dollar off a demonized plant with long-known medicinal properties, every single person who was thrown into the criminal justice system for enjoying it should get their lives back as much as possible.

It’s the black, brown and Native American people who still suffer from arrests (despite decriminalization and even legalization) and arrest records tied to the possession of the very same product which this entitled gaggle of money grubbers are slated to make billions off of over the next 10 to 20 years.

And any kind of conviction in this land of backward laws can make it nearly impossible for a person to land a job, get an apartment, handle money, volunteer, vote or work in the legalized marijuana industry.

In the meantime, rich white people are raking it in.

Even universities are getting in on the action: Northern Michigan University, for example, offers a four-year degree in marijuana. “We’re providing a fast track to get into the industry,” Brandon Canfield, a chemistry professor at the school, said.

But for whom? Usually not those doing time for possession of marijuana. Here’s an idea, though: Offer free tuition at Northern Michigan University (and all universities with marijuana majors and minors) for those who have been savagely ripped from their families and friends and had their lives damaged by the criminal justice system simply because they were black, brown or Native and had pot on their person.

It can only help, given how white the entire industry is shaping up to be. “Legal marijuana is an overwhelmingly white industry whose promises on racial equity have been left unfulfilled,” Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, wrote in a piece for USA Today.

She added: “As case in point, people of color made up to 86 percent of marijuana arrests in New York in 2017. These figures stand in stark contrast to estimates suggesting that those who hold licenses today in this growing industry are roughly 99 percent white.”

You can see not dissimilar inequities play out among consumers, too. Here in Denver, Colorado, though recreational marijuana has been legal since 2012, it’s not uncommon to see black and Latinos and Natives hide their joints and edibles while white folks openly puff and pass.

The policy nexus of pot and people of color is now a popular Democratic talking point as we near 2020. Presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren and several of the other nine POTUS-hopefuls are calling for the legalization of marijuana and speak to the scourge of racism in policing when it comes to cannabis.

“The War on Drugs has not been a war on drugs, it’s been a war on people, and disproportionately people of color and low-income individuals,” Booker said this week.

And speaking on a radio show on Monday, Sanders said too many people have been unfairly ensnared by this country’s pot policies. “Too many lives are being destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of people get criminal records. You know why? Because they have smoked marijuana,” he said. “That’s insane.”

Insane, indeed — which is why it makes sense that, as Clarke put it, “those impacted should be given first-in-line access to licensing and job opportunities in this booming industry.”

One more suggestion: For every pot brownie or vegan cannabis cookie Whole Foods will inevitably sell, the mega company should vow to pay a portion of the legal fees to help free a person who is in a cage right now simply for having once had weed, the product they want to get in on. It’s the right thing to do.

Also, they should just lower their prices. Goodness knows they’ll be the most expensive option around because, let’s be honest here, they already are for everything else.