Reflecting on How Cannabis Legalization Can Help Stop Oppressive Policing and Foster Racial Justice
A letter from Marijuana Policy Project Executive Director Steve Hawkins.
I just spent the last two nights immersed in work that is sadly too familiar. I found myself once again providing assistance to lawyers representing an African American family who had lost a loved one at the hands of the police. So often, I am drawn back to where my career began over three decades ago as a young civil rights lawyer taking on cases involving police brutality and the death penalty. For me, there was little distinction between Black and Brown people losing their lives on the street to the police and those same people being strapped to gurneys and put to death. Both serve as forms of state-sanctioned murder disproportionately applied to people of color in the United States.
The murder of George Floyd by four Minneapolis police officers is merely the latest chapter in a long and ugly history of racial oppression that has defined our nation since its inception. I have spent my life fighting against this legacy and striving for racial justice in multiple ways – through the courts, at the United Nations, in the halls of Congress and state legislatures, and on the front lines of protest. Indeed, that journey is what led me to serve as executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project two years ago.
Since 1970, when President Nixon listed cannabis as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, this plant has been at the epicenter of a vicious drug war. This war has been waged on communities of color over the last half century, taking the form of oppressive policing in which African American and Latinx lives have proven to be expendable. We have seen this in deadly police encounters, such as the killing of Philando Castile, where the police officer rationalized the shooting because he smelled “burnt marijuana” in the car and “thought I was gonna die.”