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Battle of Trenton 2.0: Cannabis Legalization and Racial Justice

Initially introduced to the United States by Mexican immigrants, legal cannabis has flourished in America in recent decades. Although Americans are known for their uniquely hedonistic perspective on the psychoactive drug, they have also long been keenly aware of the plant’s industrial and medical applications. George Washington was rumored to have been growing hemp, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that cannabis became another centerpiece in America’s never-ending culture war.

Despite all the hubbub about personal liberties present throughout Congressional debates since the body’s genesis, liberal, democratic ideals surrounding cannabis have yet to be implemented through federal policy. The 1970 Controlled Substances Act has led to endless, unnecessary arrests and an almost unbreakable social stigma surrounding a plant historically known for its healing abilities. Although the DEA regards cannabis as having “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse”, the federal government isn’t the only agent of change in America; state governments have taken the lead to enact medical cannabis initiatives since the 1990s to treat various conditions such as epilepsy and dementia. These unilateral, health-minded efforts have led to legalization for recreational purposes across the country, a policy move primarily fueled by the will of the people on the West coast. Colorado became the first state to legalize cannabis after a set of referenda enacted in the early 2010s; however, other Western regions, such as California, had been experimenting with legality since the 70s and established the country’s first medical program in 1996, known for its “easily obtainable” medical cards and lack of fear of prosecution for dispensaries.

In the past few years, numerous states on the East Coast have taken similar steps towards regulation and legalization. Vermont was the first state to pass cannabis legalization through the state legislature in January 2018; along with Maine, Massachusetts passed a referendum in November 2016. Among other Northeastern states seeking to dismantle prohibition, New Jersey is a fascinating and nuanced case, one which is worth examining in order to understand the dynamics at play behind the recent wave of legalization.

Before analyzing the complexities of New Jersey as a case study for cannabis legalization, the current federal perspective on cannabis, the cultural discrepancies between the Northeast and the West and the rollout of their cannabis programs must be delineated. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ January rescission of the Cole Memo, an Obama-era issuance that left cannabis regulation a state prerogative and encouraged targeting cartels as opposed to state government, served not only to spread the legitimacy of the Trump administration’s irrationally skeptical opinions towards legalization but also to intimidate states in the process of cannabis rollout. New Jersey Senator Cory Booker’s cannabis bill, primarily oriented towards restorative justice, has received minimal Congressional support. Although Massachusetts claims to be moving forward without hesitation, the state’s cannabis commission recently agreed to delay the rollout of recreational cannabis. While 6 in 10 Americans support legalization, this move by the executive branch has caused already hesitant state governments to further stall their actions and degrade the democratic process. If a majority of New Jerseyans support legalization, state legislators should be obligated to take action.

Cannabis culture, while growing on both coasts, has its American roots in the West. Because cannabis is more ingrained into the culture of the West coast, legalization often faces more social and legislative barriers on the East Coast. The history of cannabis bureaucracy demonstrates this discrepancy. Medical cannabis first came into law in mid-90s Oakland in response to the AIDS epidemic, and its rollout involved the state’s tacit approval of an informal market. On the East Coast, in contrast, regulators from pharmaceutical companies propped up the market themselves, first in Maine, and then in Vermont. The New England medical market is still characterized by its officiality, formality, and pharmaceutical origins. And the rise of cannabis in the east and west coasts are not just different bureaucratically; different histories, social attitudes, institutions, and cultures all shape the region’s discrepant cannabis atmospheres. While the Catholic Church in Boston spent $850,000 to stop legal cannabis in Massachusetts, cannabis churches in California were expanding fruitfully. States on both coasts are currently eager to get involved in legalization and regulation, but the stigma around cannabis in the West coast isn’t nearly as present as it can be in the East.

In the context of this cultural analysis, the overrepresentation of the West Coast in a map portraying the current status of legalization is less surprising. The politics of legalization on the East Coast have to wrestle stigmas that the West does not. But what makes New Jersey so crucial is that the opposition to legalization is the same demographic that cannabis legalization advocates claim to be helping. Not yet mentioned, race has been intimately connected to every American policy towards cannabis since the drug’s proliferation in the 20th century, and it is at the center of the ongoing debates in New Jersey.

Freshly elected Democratic governor Phil Murphy has replaced Chris Christie’s aversion to legalization with an ardent pro-cannabis attitude—one which has been met with apprehension by African-American legislators. It is no secret that state and federal governments have been incarcerating minorities for cannabis-related offenses at disproportionate rates for decades. As recreational cannabis markets have rolled out across the country, some communities have paid special attention to this historical injustice by giving cannabis license priority to non-violent former cannabis convicts, as in Oakland. Governor Murphy has preached that legalization will not only eliminate racial disparities and assist the black community, but will also generate much-needed revenue for the state.

The Legislative Black Caucus of the state legislature disagrees with Murphy, claiming that legalization and regulation are problematic and supporting mere decriminalization instead. Citing concerns of “devastation” and a decline in the “spiritual health” of New Jersey’s black community, the socially conservative Caucus, whose positions on cannabis have primarily been articulated by Senator Ronald Rice, lacks a scientific and dispassioned framework with which to address the realities of legalization; instead, they align more closely with the antiquated views of Sessions and other anti-cannabis organizations like Smart Approaches to Marijuana, with which Rice is associated. This kind of ideology pervades the Northeast more so than it did on the West Coast. As such, legalization in the Northeast will, in some cases, require a social revolution in a mindset that was not required in the West. But although the caucus lacks a rational framework with which to oppose cannabis legalization and neglects the democratic will of the people in supporting legalization, members of the caucus are right to point out the perversity of the state using legalization as a precondition for criminal justice reform. As Senator Rice put it, “You’re saying I shouldn’t be in jail and I shouldn’t be there three times as much as anyone else, but you’re telling me you won’t turn me loose unless I sign your legalization bill?”

It has yet to be proven if legalization of cannabis can, in fact, alleviate racial inequality. The evidence so far points towards the negative: legalization still involves arrests for cannabis use in public settings and other offenses, and minorities are still disproportionately affected, pointing to the legitimacy of Rice’s argument. But even so, the flaws of implementation so far do not justify the continued stalling of legalization. Although support for legalization in New Jersey is not as strong as it is nationally, a plurality of New Jersey’s constituents supports full legalization. Further, the insinuation that legalization has negative effects on African-Americans put forth by the Caucus is not founded in science or reason, but rather in stigma. Why would communities already targeted by companies selling harmful and addictive substances be “devastated” by gaining access to a non-addictive plant with proven medical benefits? The positive effects of legalization—mainly more jobs and state revenue—would greatly benefit the state and African-Americans. These benefits will only be possible, however, if the state remains committed to social justice by prioritizing cannabis business ownership for former minority convicts and enacting criminal justice reform through novel police training to end racial bias in drug arrests. This can also be achieved through a potential expungement bill that will nullify cannabis convictions. New Jersey’s ACLU policy counsel, Dianna Houenou, advocated for such a bill while recognizing the shortcomings of decriminalization: cannabis would still remain unregulated and minorities would still likely be harmed by police bias.

The state should also be inclined to listen to the voices of its younger constituents. Although cannabis should not be framed as a panacea, young cannabis activists, like New Jersey native Nadir Pearson, the president of Brown University’s Student Marijuana Alliance for Transparency and Research (SMART), fight to combat the myth that cannabis fosters laziness among other common misconceptions. Stigma must be discarded; legalization and medical expansion should move forward simultaneously in New Jersey, but the words of Ronald Rice should be remembered. The state, if it is to legalize, has an obligation to the minorities it has oppressed. The foundation of legalization must enact restorative justice by providing for the black economic agency in cannabis entrepreneurship and expunging convictions. Governor Murphy has not said much in response to the concerns from Black legislators, but his new budget includes revenue from legal cannabis. If it is to be approved, he must take action to challenge the dogmatic attitudes of his opposers while acknowledging the legitimacy of their concerns about criminal justice reform.

About the Author

Joseph Hinton '20 is a Senior Staff Writer for the Culture Section of the Brown Political Review. Joseph can be reached at