In 2010, Parker Coleman, a young Black man, was arrested for conspiracy to distribute marijuana. Coleman was sentenced to 60 years in prison, which means he will be in his 80s when released. He is incarcerated in Texas, and has been isolated as his family cannot travel the distance to visit. Because of the way courts handle marijuana policy and prosecute people of color, Coleman has been suffering in horrid prison conditions for 10 years.

This type of story is all too common here in the US, where marijuana law and policy, informed by the broader War on Drugs, sabotages far more individuals than it protects.

Marijuana is the most commonly used “illicit” drug in the United States, and is used — despite common misconceptions — by all racial and ethnic groups. It has been legalized as a medical necessity starting in the 1990s and over the past few years has made headway as a recreational substance, like alcohol.

In places like Maine, where medical cannabis has been legal since 1999, many white people have become comfortable with this privilege and unaware of the devastating effects of marijuana policy on Black and brown people in states where it remains illegal. The primary issue with the war on marijuana is that it is fueled by outdated, racist ideologies. 

Marijuana has not always been illegal in the U.S. It has been used medicinally for centuries. Perspective on marijuana use has been riddled with myths and fear, attempting to associate it with people of color and “disrupting their communities.”

At first, marijuana was vilified for having roots “south of the border,” and many white Americans associated marijuana use alongside the stereotypes of Latinx immigrants being criminal and dangerous. With his “War on Drugs” President Ronald Reagan then extended this association to Black, inner-city folks, which many people have since deduced was ultimately a race war. Because of this rhetoric, drug policing efforts are focused on communities of color. This focal point leads to disparate convictions, which then falsely confirms the racial stereotypes that people of color are more likely to use drugs or commit crimes. 

Statistics from 2010 show that Black and white people use marijuana at similar rates, yet Black people are arrested for marijuana crimes four times more often than whites. It follows that Hispanics and African-Americans make up 56% of the U.S. prisons, even though they only comprise 32% of the population. A staggering figure by the NAACP states that one out of every three Black boys born in the U.S. can expect to be incarcerated sometime during his life. These numbers show indisputable evidence of the racial bias in our justice system. 

Although over 50% of Americans support legalization, many still support criminalization of marijuana as part of the War on Drugs. Many may believe the adverse effects of marijuana outweigh the potential benefits. Even if all of the under-researched negative effects are accurate — laziness, psychosis, “gateway drug” — current marijuana policy within the structure of the War on Drugs is an ineffective use of money. Since the 1990s, the War on Drugs has been funded by American taxpayers which, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, has cost up to $1 trillion.

What has been the effect of this money on drug use? Nothing. The U.S. has been spending massive amounts to address a drug epidemic and has not decreased the use of marijuana at all. 

The money goes to keeping low-level offenders in the prison system alongside murderers and rapists, instead of being home with their families and in jobs contributing to our economy.

Americans — and white marijuana users especially — need to question what good the War on Drugs is doing, and to pay attention to the racial bias that sometimes disguises itself as an attempt for the greater good. Is it the greater good for all people, or for white people?

The War on Drugs, including the war on marijuana, causes much more harm than good in our society, especially for people of color. The entire basis of this war that feeds the U.S. prison industrial complex should be scrutinized and eradicated. 

Luka Baskett is a student at the University of Maine at Farmington, and this piece was written as part of coursework in Incarceration Nation class.


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