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opinion | Ending the war on marijuana is crucial to racial justice

President Biden’s historic pardon of thousands of Americans convicted of a federal crime for simple marijuana possession is a long-awaited correction in the overheated war on drugs — a failed effort that has disproportionately affected black and brown people and wreaked havoc in communities of color.

It’s hard to overstate the elation (and in some cases surprise) among civil rights leaders. Derrick Johnson of the NAACP tweeted: “We applaud President Biden for forgiving those convicted of simple marijuana possession. Correcting unequal treatment — including marijuana reform — has been a priority for the NAACP for decades.” And also for many other groups.

Your Questions Answered About Biden’s Marijuana Pardon Announcement

You can understand why. The American Civil Liberties Union has found that “the aggressive enforcement of marijuana possession laws unnecessarily traps hundreds of thousands of people in the criminal justice system and wastes billions of taxpayer dollars,” and that “it is being conducted with a staggering racial bias.” In addition, this enforcement “has failed to reduce marijuana use and availability and redirect resources that could be better invested in our communities.”

To give you an idea of ​​the magnitude of the problem: “Between 2001 and 2010, there were over 8 million pot arrests in the US… Marijuana use is about equal among blacks and whites, but blacks are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.”

It has long been known that these arrests and convictions carry enormous and lasting costs. They can “negatively affect eligibility for social housing and student grants, employment, determinations of child custody and immigration status.” That’s the definition of structural racism—something Republicans so often refuse to acknowledge exists.

While Biden’s move won’t erase people’s criminal records — nor will it result in the release of anyone currently incarcerated — a pardon would remove “civil disabilities,” including restrictions on the right to vote, hold office, or being on a jury,” The Post reports. The action “may ultimately help people get back to the voting booth or jury, or get work.”

In a broader sense, Biden’s move shows how actions that correct racial inequality can benefit wider society. Correcting injustices against black and brown people helps remove a racial barrier, but it also helps anyone affected by bad policies. Americans in the Rust Belt and rural communities who have seen the destruction wrought by addiction to fentanyl and other drugs should appreciate the effort to rethink the punishment of nonviolent drug users. This is the antithesis of the zero-sum political mindset in which gains for blacks must mean losses for whites.

Biden’s decision regarding student debt is also one that addresses inequality. While critics have raised legitimate concerns about the move’s constitutionality and inflationary impact, it addresses a problem that also disproportionately affects black people. “Black borrowers carry on average about $40,000 in federal student loans, $10,000 more than white borrowers, according to federal education data,” the Associated Press reported.

“The inequality reflects a racial wealth gap in the US — a gap that some proponents say the debt relief plan isn’t doing enough to narrow,” the AP added. “One in four black borrowers would see their debt forgiven in full under the government’s plan,” including “an additional $10,000 for Pell Grant recipients, who are more than twice as likely to be black.” Again, addressing a barrier to millions of black people also lifts white borrowers.

Many policies that help low-income Americans (e.g., Medicaid, housing subsidies) disproportionately help black people and other disadvantaged groups because they have been most likely affected by the existing wealth and income gaps that result from institutional racism in all its forms. White people should not regret them. Raising living standards and opportunities for each group benefits the whole — another thing many Republicans are reluctant to admit.

If Biden’s action prompts governors to pardon those convicted of state marijuana crimes, and if the government moves to reshuffle cannabis on the federal list of controlled substances (eliminating current parity with heroin, for example) , something Biden says he is considering, this could be the most sweeping advance in racial justice in recent memory. While such a policy will not undo the damage of the past—jobs and homes lost, education foreclosed, families torn apart—it would be an important step toward a more just and fairer America.

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