When Connecticut legalizes weed, reparations must follow

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FILE - In this April 20, 2018, file photo, a customer shops for marijuana at the Exhale Nevada dispensary in Las Vegas. Complaints that the state releases no information about who applies for and receives dispensary licenses in Nevada's booming retail marijuana business are spurring lawsuits and legislative proposals that appear poised to push the process public. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

FILE – In this April 20, 2018, file photo, a customer shops for marijuana at the Exhale Nevada dispensary in Las Vegas. Complaints that the state releases no information about who applies for and receives dispensary licenses in Nevada’s booming retail marijuana business are spurring lawsuits and legislative proposals that appear poised to push the process public. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

Connecticut may soon become the next state to legalize weed. More than anything, the most recent push for legalization is driven by a desperate need for tax revenue to address Connecticut’s budget woes.

But some Connecticut legislators are striving for more than a balanced budget. In legalization, these legislators see an opportunity to heal the deep scars left behind by decades of systemic racial bias in policing, prosecuting and jailing. In other words: Reparations. The bills advancing through the Connecticut General Assembly right now include clauses that would expunge the record of any individual convicted of possessing 1.5 ounces or less of weed. It’s a good start, but Connecticut lawmakers should go further, expunging a broader array of records and earmarking tax revenue for the most affected black and Latino/a communities.

Richard Nixon’s top aide, John Ehrlichman, famously said that the war on drugs was designed to target “hippies and blacks.” In the four decades since Nixon declared war, police, prosecutors, policymakers and prisons have institutionalized this mindset, growing and mutating the war on drugs into a grotesque instrument of oppression. 

At every stage of the criminal justice system, black and Latino/a Americans are treated more harshly than their white counterparts. Despite using marijuana at similar rates, black Americans are almost four times as likely to be arrested for possession than white Americans. Black and Latino/a Americans make up approximately 30 percent of the population, but represent almost 80 percent of Americans incarcerated for drug offenses. A wide body of research has shown that prosecutors are more likely to pursue harsher sentences for black Americans, and that judges are more likely to set higher bails for black and Latino/a Americans. Due to the gaping wealth gap, black and Latino/a Americans who are arrested are often unable to afford lawyers, and thus are more likely to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit. Black and Latino/a Americans are disproportionately targeted for search warrants — even when adjusting for drug usage rates — and are more likely to have SWAT teams set on their homes for low-level drug searches.  

In Connecticut, black residents make up 41 percent of the prison population, despite only comprising 10 percent of the overall population. Latino/as make up 29 percent of the prison population but only 13 percent of the overall population. Urban communities in Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven and Waterbury have been hit hardest by these racial disparities.

The effects of incarceration are long lasting and crippling. Almost every facet of American life that is tied to social advancement and participation in civil society is denied or restricted for those with criminal records. Housing, loans, education, voting rights, employment, jury duty — all are outright denied or harder to access. Incarceration leads to mental health issues which are often unaddressed. The children of incarcerated men do worse in school and are more prone to behavioral issues. These trends exacerbate the existing racial wealth gap, which was built on the foundations of Jim Crow and decades of de jure housing discrimination.

Mass incarceration is the anchor which pulls and pulls and pulls at black and Latino/a communities until they drown under its immense weight. 

And a large chunk of this devastation can be directly linked to the racist over policing of weed.

Connecticut — and the country as a whole — owes a great debt to our most trodden upon communities. Through the legalization of weed, the door has been opened for the debt to be repaid. All marijuana possession criminal records must be expunged — and as Connecticut journalist Dan Harr pointed out last week, many ginned up intent to sell and disorderly conduct charges must be examined as well. Black and Latino/a entrepreneurs must be welcomed into the new weed industry. The substantial tax revenue which will be generated by legalization must be directed back to black and Latino/a communities, and these communities must be given agency and control over the funds in order to address their most pressing problems.  

Make no mistake: Outside the advent of time travel, reparations cannot possibly be paid in full. The wounds of slavery, Jim Crow, housing discrimination and mass incarceration run too deep, and their long standing ripple effects will continue to be felt for centuries. But pairing racial equity with weed legalization is a good start, and it’s achievable. So let’s do it.


Harry Zehner is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at harry.zehner@uconn.edu.

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