I remember hooting when I watched “Reefer Madness” at some point in my college days, when smoking marijuana was secretive but common enough that no one was either shocked or scandalized.
The movie, released in 1936, was straight up propaganda, warning parents that if their children got ahold of “marihuana,” there would be a direct line from a toke to a life of crime and depravity. “The motion picture you are about to witness may startle,” words scrolling on the screen said. “It would not have been possible, otherwise, to sufficiently emphasize the frightful toll of the new drug menace which is destroying the youth of America in alarmingly increasing numbers. Marihuana is that drug — a violent narcotic, an unspeakable scourge — The Real Public Enemy Number One!”
The first effect of inhaling marijuana, we were told, was “sudden, violent uncontrollable laughter” that devolved into various tragic consequences, “ending often in incurable insanity.”
Such laughable assertions nevertheless shaped law enforcement policy and the messages of moral gatekeepers of First Lady Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” ilk. I remember when a young girl was brought before the congregation in a Baptist church in my hometown to be publicly shamed for having been caught with reefer in her school locker.
For me, reefer (aka joints, weed, blunts, ganja) was never an attraction because I am not a smoker. But my attitude over the years has been shaped by all those messages about health, addiction, morality and criminality. That attitude was shaped, too, by a realization that, like so many facets of American life, who got caught and what the consequences were often came down to race.
President Richard Nixon launched the so-called war on drugs with the intent to decimate “the antiwar left and Black people,” according to what one of his top aides, John Ehrlichman, told a writer for Harper’s Magazine. “We know we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or be Black,” Ehrlichman said, “but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and the Black people with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about drugs? Of course, we did.”
What we could see with our own eyes lent credence to what Ehrlichman, a convicted Watergate co-conspirator, said: There was a war on Black people, especially men. Mass arrests deprived people of jobs, housing, child custody rights, professional licenses and voting rights.
In 2018, the Baltimore Fishbowl reported that in a three-year period, 2015-2017, city police arrested 1,448 adults and 66 juveniles for cannabis possession. And guess what? Ninety-six percent of them were Black. In 2019, then Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby reported that “the disparate enforcement of marijuana laws not only intensifies already existing racial disparities in the criminal justice system but exacerbates distrust among communities and law enforcement without increasing overall public safety.” Even when it came to the police issuing citations rather than making arrests for possession of small amounts, numbers in her report showed that from 2015 through 2017, 94% of the 675 citations were given to Black people.
That’s a bit of what’s meant by a war on Black people.
So fast forward. Starting July 1, recreational marijuana use by adults will be legal in Maryland. Now, marijuana conjures not madness, but merchandizing. Rebranded as cannabis, it is no longer about criminality but about culture and cuisine and, yes, capitalism. The cannabis industry is expected to generate $1 billion in annual revenue in the state — and a lot of people are clamoring for a piece of the action.
But what about the damage done during the decadeslong war President Nixon unleashed — and subsequent presidents, governors and mayors carried out — in the name of public safety?
The city’s chief equity officer, Dana P. Moore, has put it this way: “As the State prepares to regulate what will most certainly become a major economic engine for the State of Maryland, we must also consider how to address the inequity between those with criminal records resulting from past cannabis use and sales and those who will now, legally and with State sanctioning, engage in use and sales.”
The new cannabis reform law tries to address equity in several ways. First, at least 30% of revenues generated from cannabis sales and licensing fees will go to the Community Reinvestment and Repair Fund to be disbursed to community-based organizations that serve communities “most impacted by disproportionate enforcement of the cannabis prohibition before July 1, 2022.” Second, the first round of new licenses to operate dispensaries will be issued to people who have lived in or attended school in those same areas. Third, the Cannabis Business Assistance Fund will assist small, minority-owned, and women-owned businesses entering the adult-use cannabis industry.
If Mayor Brandon Scott signs a bill passed by the City Council in May, the money coming to Baltimore will be handled by a 17-member Community Reinvestment and Reparations Commission. The money will “begin to repair harms of the past that have destroyed our communities in ways that are unspeakable,” City Council President Nick Mosby said at a hearing in March, adding that it will “ensure that the dignity and equity and opportunity that have been stolen from communities through these draconian racist practices are dealt with.”
All this is a bit pie-in-the-sky for now, but I did hear one person testify about using the money to address the trauma and psychological damage done to children whose parents have been incarcerated, to help families heal and to help the formerly incarcerated adjust to life on the outside, including even developing skills to be able to participate in the legal cannabis industry.
As it turns out, marijuana may not have been the gateway to a drug-fueled Armageddon. But repairing the damage done by malevolent marijuana enforcement policies just might become a gateway to reparations on a broader scale. That is to say: What’s owed to Black people to repair the damage from slavery and the structural racism that still dictates so much of our lives?
E.R. Shipp is a veteran journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. She is also currently an associate professor at Morgan State University.