America’s lucrative new weed industry should compensate the black victims of the country’s war on drugs

It was state-sponsored racial terrorism, so reparations should be paid from the profits of the newly legal – and mostly white-owned – cannabis economy

America has long been high on its own endless supply of hypocrisy. The “land of the free” has the largest prison population in the world; the “home of the brave” has elected a coward to the White House. The United States, it has become clear, is still a divided country with different rules for its different coloured citizens. And, arguably, nowhere are those double standards more bluntly black and white than when it comes to the corporatisation of cannabis.

In recent years, the US establishment has gone from piously advising people to Just Say No to drugs, to saying “yes, please” to profiting from pot. To date, eight states have legalised recreational cannabis. Some colleges, such as the University of Denver, have introduced Business of Marijuana courses into their curriculums. Hordes of bright, mainly white, young things have launched lucrative cannabis startups and there’s an interminable stream of trend pieces in the US media about everything from cannabis-kale to how “bud bars” are the fashionable new fixture at white weddings.

Blue-chip companies are also benefiting from the green rush: Scotts Miracle-Gro, a lawn-care company, saw its shares rise 31% last year, after buying up lots of companies that provide supplies for hydroponics, the favoured method of cultivating cannabis. Guess how many people of colour are on the Scotts leadership team? None.

So while legal marijuana money has started pouring into the US economy, there’s ample evidence that it’s largely white people profiting. A Buzzfeed investigation last year, for example, estimated only about 1% of the storefront marijuana dispensaries in the US are owned by black people.

The racial inequities in the new marijuana economy are particularly egregious considering the US’s decades-long war on drugs, which disproportionately punished African Americans for petty drug crimes. A 2013 report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found black people are almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, despite similar usage rates. The war on drugs has always been sanitised shorthand for: The War on Non-White People, With a Particular Emphasis on Black People.

The US’s racist approach to marijuana – both past and present – is hardly news. But what do we do about it? Well, I’ve got an idea: reparations. Every business now exploiting the legalisation of marijuana should forfeit at least 50% of their pot-based profits to a fund that gives reparations to people whose lives were destroyed by the US’s discriminatory war on drugs.

If this sounds fanciful, it shouldn’t. There is a longstanding debate in the US about whether the government should compensate African Americans for the legacy of slavery – and the war on drugs is very much part of that legacy. Indeed, slavery was never entirely abolished in the US, it simply evolved, as white America found less overt ways to beat down its black population. Slavery 2.0 was the Jim Crow laws, that segregated and disenfranchised black people from around 1890 to the early 1950s. Slavery 3.0 took the form of what has been described as the “new Jim Crow”: the mass incarceration of black people. In her highly influential 2010 book, The New Jim Crow, legal scholar Michelle Alexander explains that “rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of colour ‘criminals’ and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind … employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity … are suddenly legal ... We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”

There has been a lot of pushback against the idea of reparations for slavery. In a poll conducted last year, 81% of white people opposed the idea. Arguments against reparations for slavery tend to focus on the fact that slavery is a long time past. A National Review article entitled The Case Against Reparations argues, for example, that: “The people to whom reparations were owed are long dead; our duty is to the living, and to generations yet to come, and their interests are best served by liberty and prosperity, not by moral theatre.”

You can’t argue any of these counterpoints when it comes to the case for marijuana reparations, however. Many of the people whose lives were ruined by disproportionally harsh punishment for petty drug crimes are still alive and suffering the consequences. What’s more, it’s hard to talk about moral theatre when you’re taking money from people who are currently profiting from drugs and giving it to people who were incarcerated for attempting to profit from drugs.

Reparations only seem to be contentious when the people receiving money aren’t white. In 2015, for example, a bill signed by Barack Obama established the US Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund. This uncontroversial fund seizes assets from terrorist financiers and uses the money to compensate US victims of terrorism by state sponsors of terrorism. Much of the money for the fund has come from French bank BNP Paribas, which was fined $9bn in 2014 for violating US sanctions against Iran, Cuba and Sudan. Earlier this year the criminal division announced that more than $800m (£621m) had been paid out from the fund to individuals such as the Iran hostages held from 1979 to 1981.

The US’s war against drugs, I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say, was state-sponsored racial terrorism. The only reason it’s not widely recognised as such, and there isn’t a compensation fund, is because racism is one hell of a drug.


Arwa Mahdawi

The GuardianTramp

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