It’s a known fact that people of color have been unfairly targeted in the War on Drugs. Although folks of all races are likely to buy and consume marijuana, people of color are policed more aggressively and are more likely to have more punitive measures taken against them. And as protests against police brutality rage on countrywide, it’s become very clear that for POC, routine police stops are a matter of life and death.
In Georgia, for instance, strict drug laws encourage police officers to search for drugs during otherwise routine interactions such as traffic stops. According to Georgia Senator Harold Jones II, a Democrat and former prosecutor, this increases the odds of police-civilian encounters escalating and turning violent. “I just see so many interactions between police and citizens that are based on drug interactions, trying to find narcotics. We as legislators are putting the police in that situation because we’re demanding they enforce this,” he says.
He has introduced a bill that would reduce penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana. He, fellow lawmakers and activists who want to legalize marijuana, reduce penalties for possession, and expunge marijuana-related offenses from people’s records have for years argued that drug policy is a social justice issue. It’s not just about tax revenues and eliminating the underground cannabis market, but also about fixing a broken criminal justice system and reinvesting in communities harmed by the War on Drugs.
Some lawmakers in New York have brought up marijuana legalization as one of the ways they can improve policing in the state. “For me, the social justice of it is much larger than, I think, the taxing and regulating, although that is important,” says New York Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Democrat representing part of the city of Buffalo. She has also put forward a bill to legalize weed. “Many, many of my colleagues are bringing that up as a topic, as I have. There’s no question that some of the things that are going on with marijuana are because they smell marijuana.”
However, some law enforcement groups are vehemently opposed to legalizing recreational cannabis. According to Georgia Sheriffs’ Association executive director J. Terry Norris, the elected sheriffs represented by the association have opposed legalizing marijuana for years because they view it as a dangerous drug. “It’s their opinion that marijuana is a much more dangerous substance than some may have you believe,” he says.
Regardless of marijuana policy, he says, both law enforcement officers and the residents they interact with have a role to play in avoiding violent confrontations. “If you obey the law there’s not much chance you’re going to get hurt.”
Industry watchers say the policing reforms being advocated for are the very same reasons that cannabis industry actors like Pure Extracts Corp. have always talked about as the cannabis law reform movement took root in different jurisdictions.
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