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Marijuana is one of the most-used psychoactive substances in the United States, second only to alcohol in popularity. An estimated 45 percent of the adult population have now tried it in their lifetime. Public support for legalization has surged. A September 2019 Pew Research poll found that 91 percent of adults approve of legalizing cannabis for medical use, and 59 percent of this group say it should be legal for general adult use as well.
Marijuana policy is slowly but steadily catching up to American preferences. Since 1996, 35 states have loosened cannabis laws. The majority of the U.S. population lives in a state with legalized medical access and a growing plurality live in a state where it is legal for adult use. In November 2020, cannabis legalization measures were approved in all states that had them, including Mississippi (for medical purposes); Arizona, New Jersey, and Montana (for general adult use); and South Dakota (for both).
Despite being widely available and highly tolerated, if not enthusiastically endorsed, marijuana remains an integral feature of the larger War on Drugs. More people are arrested for cannabis possession than any other offense in the United States. There were over 1.6 million drug arrests in 2018; 43 percent were marijuana related. Ninety-two percent of these marijuana arrests were for possession.
Marijuana law enforcement has always disproportionately impacted people of color, a pattern that continues despite reform. Minorities are also less likely to benefit from the financial opportunities and legal access promised by legalization. Structural resistance to change and logistical hurdles to developing and implementing new regulatory structures are part of the problem. But at a basic level, these inequities persist because of the failure to center reform around racial justice.
A supposed benefit of policy change, racial justice has too often been eclipsed by arguments touting the economic and personal liberty gains of legalization. Until recently, the expectation that legalization will improve racial equity has been treated as a foregone conclusion, one requiring no additional action beyond legalization itself. We now know, and should have always known, that this is not the case.