Cannabis Legalization and Cannabis Incarceration

How those in prison for cannabis-related crimes have been left behind—and how California hopes to change that

The passage of California’s Proposition 64 ushers in what is expected to be one of the largest recreational cannabis markets in the world. Lawmakers expect billions of dollars in revenue. Los Angeles will become the largest city with legal cannabis.

What does Proposition 64 mean for inmates who are currently serving time for cannabis-related charges? Under a little-known provision of the new law, individuals with cannabis convictions may have their time greatly reduced. It is possible some would have their records wiped clean.

The Washington Post states, “[California officials want to] reverse decades of marijuana convictions that can make it difficult for people to gain meaningful employment and disproportionately affect low-income minorities.”

According to data compiled by the Drug Policy Alliance, 500,000 people were arrested for cannabis-related crimes in California between 2006 and 2015. It would be ignorant—if not completely irresponsible—to not reckon with the thousands of prisoners currently serving time.

Data implies racial profiling in cannabis arrests 

The Drug Policy Alliance also reveals that 77 percent of those charged with cannabis-related crimes in 2015 in Oakland were black. In Oakland, 34 percent of the population is white. Three-fourths of all cannabis-related arrests were black, despite this demographic comprising 28 percent of the population.

Many would argue this is because of long-standing racist policy in the United States. The Drug War specifically singled out poor and minority neighborhoods. Today, cannabis-related crimes still account for too many arrests. These numbers are especially high in communities of color. This well-documented racial disparity continues to affect communities across the country, despite progressive drug laws in some states.

The New York Times illuminates, “Black Americans were nearly four times as likely as whites to be arrested on charges of marijuana possession in 2010, even though the two groups used the drug at similar rates.”

This statistic has been supported by a study conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2013.

Hope for inmates in California

Already, more than 4,000 California inmates have petitioned the courts about their sentencing.

“We worked to help create a legalized and regulated process for legal marijuana, but we also wanted to make sure we could help … repair the damages of marijuana prohibition,” said Eunisses Hernandez to The Washington Post. Hernandez is a policy coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance.

Selling cannabis illegally is considered a felony. This designation has life-shattering consequences: as a felon, it is difficult to find employment, housing, or to take out a loan.

Proposition 64 undoubtedly ushers in opportunity for economic growth for the Golden State. It also offers hope to many who have spent years in prison. Despite 29 states having legal cannabis laws, legal options for inmates are still disappointingly scarce. According to polls, two-thirds of the nation support legal cannabis. However, this number declines sharply when discussing incarceration.

Even so, it is apparent that states are doing things differently—and Californian lawmakers hope to exist as an example. California’s policy lays the groundwork for other states in the future to put forth similar opportunities for incarcerated individuals.

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