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Opinion Ending the war on marijuana is crucial for racial justice

President Biden in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., on Oct. 6. (Tom Brenner/REUTERS)

President Biden’s historic pardon of thousands of Americans convicted of a federal crime for simple marijuana possession is a long overdue 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 amazement) among civil rights leaders. Derrick Johnson of the NAACP tweeted: “We applaud President Biden for pardoning those who have been convicted for the simple possession of marijuana. Correcting unequal treatment — including marijuana reform — has been a priority issue for the NAACP for decades.” And for scores of other groups as well.

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 needlessly ensnares hundreds of thousands of people into the criminal justice system and wastes billions of taxpayers’ dollars,” and that “it is carried out with staggering racial bias.” In addition, this enforcement “has failed to reduce marijuana use and availability and diverted resources that could be better invested in our communities.”

To give you a sense of the magnitude of the problem: “Between 2001 and 2010, there were over 8 million pot arrests in the U.S. … Marijuana use is roughly equal among Blacks and Whites, yet Blacks are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.”

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It has long been known that these arrests and convictions have tremendous and lasting costs. They can “negatively impact public housing and student financial aid eligibility, employment opportunities, child custody determinations and immigration status.” That is the very definition of structural racism — something Republicans so often refuse to acknowledge exists.

While Biden’s move will not expunge people’s criminal records — nor will it result in the release of anyone currently imprisoned — a pardon “would remove ‘civil disabilities,’ which include restrictions on the right to vote, to hold office or to sit on a jury,” as The Post reported. The action “could ultimately help people get back to the voting booth or jury box, or secure employment.”

In a larger sense, Biden’s move demonstrates how actions that correct racial inequity can benefit the broader society. Rectifying injustice against Black and Brown people helps chip away at a racial barrier, but it also helps everyone affected by bad policy. 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 reconsider the punishment of nonviolent drug users. This is the antithesis of the zero-sum political mentality in which gains for Black people must mean losses for Whites.

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

“The disparity reflects a racial wealth gap in the U.S. — one that some advocates say the debt relief plan does not do enough to narrow,” the AP added. “One in four Black borrowers would see their debt cleared entirely under the administration’s plan,” which includes “an additional $10,000 in relief for Pell Grant recipients, who are more than twice as likely to be Black.” Again, addressing a hindrance to millions of Black people also lifts White borrowers.

Many policies assisting lower-income Americans (e.g., Medicaid, housing subsidies) disproportionately help Black people and other disadvantaged groups because they are most likely to have been affected by the existing wealth and income gaps that stem from institutional racism in all its forms. White people should not deplore them. Raising standards of living and opportunity for any group benefits the whole — another thing many Republicans are loath to admit.

If Biden’s action prompts governors to pardon people convicted of state marijuana crimes, and if the administration moves to reschedule cannabis on the federal list of controlled substances (eliminating its current parity with heroin, for example), something Biden says he is considering, this could be the most consequential advancement in racial justice in recent memory. While such policies will not undo past harms — jobs and homes lost, educations foreclosed, families torn apart — they would be a significant step toward a more just and fair America.

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