Is cannabis decriminalization the key to American justice?

Sleepwalking is a little scary. You don’t know when you might bump into something, or someone is going to shake you and you’re going to wake up in a strange place. Possibly naked.

America bumped into something hard this week. We were finally shaken awake in a rather strange and scary place. Questioning what kind of people we are; brought to the brink by the video of a man having the life snuffed out of him, with the very real possibility the perpetrator might walk. The naked truth was that the verdict in this case was actually at all in doubt — confirming how deeply unconscious we have been.

A couple centuries into this experiment, we’re just waking up to the fact that we have second-class citizens in America: People of color do not enjoy the same freedoms — for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — as white people. We say we have equality in the U.S., but we do not. Yet this has been denied in history books and by news organizations, politicians, the courts, etc. And it’s still denied by too many.

And our cannabis laws have been a lever for how this inequality is implemented. As detailed by former police officer Jack Wilborn in episode 67 of the Kannaboom Podcast, if an officer smells cannabis (or says they do) they have license to kick the door down, stop and frisk, search the car, escalate things immediately. And they do, routinely, in cities and towns across the country. In this way, suspicion of cannabis use often leads to an arrest that then cascades into multiple charges, incarceration and lifelong consequences. Says Wilborn:

“One out of three Blacks will go to jail, when one out of 17 whites will go to jail, which does seem a little bit skewed. Then you take the fact that less than 13% of Americans are Black. You know, at least 13% of the population, then you’re looking at the ratio should be more like one out of 170 for black people. But it isn’t. It’s one out of three and yes, that’s very sad, but you know, it isn’t just the arrest. Then, once you get arrested, you go in and now they want cash for a bail bond to get out. If they let you out, you know, if they’re held for one of these drug charges, they may be held for multiple days and it’s difficult to get bail when they’re held like that. They may be the head of the family, the  person that brings home the food. So now you’re starving the kids.”

With an arrest on your record it’s harder to find a job and a place to live. Get an education. Do all the things that enable you to fulfill the American dream. Because you’ve been pegged. And it starts with the color of your skin. And the smell of cannabis.

This is not right and we must fix it. By voting for candidates committed to cannabis rights and social justice. By supporting decriminalization of cannabis at the state and federal level. By having conversations, one at a time, about what justice in America really looks like. We have to be the change we want.

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Another awakening, more personal: This week I heard from a third cousin by way of 23andMe. She and I share DNA through our mutual great-great grandparents. She was able to trace her family back to the same small town in Quebec that’s in my family lore.

Here’s the unexpected part: According to her 23andMe profile, she is 65% sub-Saharan African and 33% European. According to my profile, I am .1% African, and 99.5% European.  

It never occurred to me that I am related to a person of color. But we share blood and likely some genetic traits. Maybe even some cultural beliefs and the kinds of values that get passed down through generations. Turns out I am part of a more diverse tribe than I thought.

Could this be true for you too? We’ve all been trained to recognize certain people as not our kin. But we are all kin. We breathe the same air, drink the same water, have the same hopes and dreams and want the same things for ourselves and our children. How far back do we have to go to discover we share blood and genes? In my case, and probably yours, not very far.

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We woke up some over the past year, and especially this last week. When are we going to realize we’re all part of the same tribe?

Can cannabis help? It’s been used as an instrument of violence, a fulcrum by which to pry away rights and enforce an unjust inequality against fellow citizens. Now it’s time to use it as an instrument of healing, as something that can promote economic justice as well as physical, spiritual and emotional well being.

It will take all of us, being maybe more outspoken and more political than we have been. But the stakes are high, and the time is now. Let’s stop sleepwalking and make this a bigger movement than it already is. Cannabis can help bring us together, instead of tearing us apart. Pass it on!