The victims of the war on drugs are not the characters prohibition wants you to picture.
So instead, imagine this:
You live with a debilitating illness with little hope that you’ll have the quality of life you did before you got sick. Then, you learn that a plant-based medicine is available to others for the symptoms you’re facing.
But your state prohibits possession of cannabis, the medicine you keep hearing about. Your options are to continue living as you are now or to move to another state.
Now imagine another scenario:
You’re a registered medical marijuana patient. But thanks to prohibition, you have a debilitating legal condition on top of your medical one: a felony conviction for cannabis possession.
You were convicted for driving through a prohibition state with your medical marijuana – medicine you rely on to manage your illness. Local officers searched your vehicle because your car music violated a noise ordinance. You wonder if it was your speakers or your Blackness that your arresting officers found disruptive.
The victims of cannabis prohibition aren’t violent thugs. They’re medical patients. They’re the disproportionately Black and Brown targets of over-policing.
At eight years old, Jennifer Collins’ doctors gave her an epilepsy diagnosis and prescribed her conventional pharmaceutical drugs. Six months into treatment, she became suicidal. In the following years, the side effects of her prescription medications resulted in weight gain, decreased cognitive function, and severe mood and behavioral problems.
Collins’ parents decided to relocate from Virginia to Colorado so she could access cannabis. Since the move and incorporation of cannabis into her treatment plan, she’s been able to wean off the prescription pills and restart her life.
But Collins’ activities are federally illegal and illegal in several states. Like the Collins, there are hundreds of families all over the country navigating legally ambiguous terrain, hoping to give their children a better future without ending up in prison for it.
However, cannabis prohibition targets certain communities differently. Jennifer Collins belongs to a white family with enough financial resources to move her and her mother to Colorado.
Her family's racial privilege allowed them the political capital to take that risk and publicly advocate for medical cannabis in ways that could be damning for a similarly situated Black family.
In 2016, Sean Worsley was "laughing and joking around" while air-playing the guitar to his car’s radio at a gas station.
This was enough for local Alabama police officer Carl Abramo to search Worsley’s vehicle.
A registered medical marijuana patient in Arizona, Worsley is a Black Iraqi War veteran with chronic back pain, seizures, shoulder pain, and PTSD. He and his wife, Eboni, were traveling to North Carolina to check on his grandmother, whose home was flooded during Hurricane Matthew.
Federal cannabis prohibition makes it illegal for people to travel across state lines with cannabis. Cannabis is also illegal in Alabama.
Officer Abramo found Worsley’s cannabis and scale, arrested him, and charged him with a felony (even after seeing his Arizona medical marijuana card). Ultimately, Worsley spent ten months in prison and upwards of ten thousand dollars because of this encounter.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, Black people are arrested for cannabis possession 3.6 times as often as white people despite nearly equivalent use rates between demographics.
In Alabama (where Worsley was arrested), Black people are arrested 4.1 times as often. However, in some Alabama counties, the numbers are much higher. For example, Black people in Lee County are 12.8 times as likely to be arrested for cannabis possession. In DeKalb, they are 45.4 times as likely.
If Worsley experienced nothing more than an arrest, that would have been devastating enough. However, the consequences of cannabis prohibition merely began at that initial interaction with police.
Worsley – a Purple Heart recipient – was arrested, questioned, charged thousands of dollars in fines and legal fees, given 60 days of probation, extradited to Alabama after being unable to pay court-ordered monies, and incarcerated.
Anyone ensnared by cannabis criminalization faces the collateral consequences Worsley experienced. But they are much more likely to be inflicted on Black people. The ripple effect weakens entire communities of color – communities already targeted by other aspects of structural racism.
In 2011, Bernard Noble was riding his bike to the grocery store when local Louisiana police stopped him. The police found a small bag of cannabis on the floor near him, arrested him, and sentenced him to a 13-year prison sentence because he was a “habitual offender.”
In 2014, Corvain Cooper was sentenced to life in prison for money laundering and tax evasion related to his unregulated cannabis business.
Both Noble and Cooper are Black men who were sentenced to over ten years of prison for non-violent cannabis activities. Both men had young children at the time of their arrest. Both men feared that their lives were over.
Noble was released on parole after spending seven years of his life incarcerated for cannabis. Cooper was granted clemency by former President Trump, also after spending seven years in prison.
Despite their newly regained freedom, neither Cooper nor Noble will ever get back the time they lost.
While incarcerated, their skills were underutilized, their children got older, life carried on without their participation, and cannabis – the substance at the root of their convictions – became a quasi-legal, multibillion-dollar industry.
Take inventory of the heaviness and frustration you feel in response to that. Then use that energy to support social equity initiatives in your community.
Social equity in cannabis is designed to assist the communities most harmed by the criminalization of cannabis – the BIPOC men, women, and children targeted by the war on drugs because of their skin color and economic status.
Supporting social equity can be as involved as starting, joining, or funding a grassroots movement advocating for cannabis legalization and social equity.
Or it can be as simple as purchasing a pre-roll with a mission behind it.
On July 13, Curaleaf, Bernard Noble, and Fab 5 Freddy (creator of cannabis documentary, Grass Is Greener) will release a two-pack pre-roll containing roughly the same amount of cannabis that landed Noble a 13-year prison sentence. A portion of the proceeds will go to the local community’s social equity initiatives, including assistance for returning citizens.
This partnership represents Curaleaf’s commitment to social equity brands. It also presents cannabis consumers with an opportunity to build social equity into a regular, practical part of their lives.
Consumer demands shape industry. When consumers use their influence to demand social equity, they benefit those at the center of the drug war’s harms.
Collins, Worsley, Cooper, and Noble are all victims of cannabis prohibition, a disease that steals years of people’s lives.
Patients who could benefit from cannabis medicine lose time to needless suffering. Targets of cannabis criminalization (mostly people of color in poor neighborhoods) lose time to the criminal justice system.
These losses are preventable, and it isn’t difficult to learn how to prevent them.
That’s because the root of cannabis prohibition is misinformation, an ailment that the abundance of high-quality, free, public information about cannabis can treat immediately.
Awareness of cannabis prohibition’s harms brings a type of knowledge-based “herd immunity” that can protect those most vulnerable to anti-cannabis propaganda and systemic racism: the sick and the politically and socially marginalized.
When we protect the most vulnerable people in our communities from cannabis prohibition, everyone is safer for it.