‘Black Lives Matter’ Has Significance Beyond Police Violence: It Also Applies to Cannabis Arrests

While George Floyd’s murder put the spotlight on police brutality and racism, What people may not know, however, is the related issue of police and justice-system discrimination against those same minorities, especially black Americans, for minor offenses involving cannabis.
Joan Oleck
Written by Joan Oleck, Cannabis Journalist
Last Updated
Angelos, third from left, with Snoop Dogg, second from left, along with two Koch Industries executives.

(Image above: Angelos, third from left, with Snoop Dogg, second from left, along with two Koch Industries executives.)

Millions of people worldwide now know the name George Floyd. They know this African American man was murdered on May 25 when a Minneapolis police officer dug his knee into Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes. “I can’t breathe,” Floyd said – then died.

Millions worldwide also know of the protests that followed – not just in the U.S. but in multiple countries. They know of the protestors’ demands to defund police departments and initiate training to halt the high incidence of police brutality against people of color.

What people may not know, however, is the related issue of police and justice-system discrimination against those same minorities, especially black Americans, for minor offenses involving cannabis.

As an American Civil Liberties Union study reported in April, “War on Drugs policies disproportionately target people of color and particularly Black people, and marijuana laws are a prime example.”

The report continued: “The proof is in the data. Nationwide, Black people are 3.6 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana, despite similar usage rates.”

And individual states have even worse racial disparities: Montana’s figure for black arrests, for instance, is fully 9.6 times that for whites. Even the “legal” states show these distinctions: Illinois, 7.5 times, and Vermont, 6.1 times, to name just two. Then there are the decriminalized states: North Dakota, 5.5 times, and Delaware, 4.2 times.

This particular type of racial discrimination needs to be better known, says activist Weldon Angelos. “Most cannabis consumers are not aware that people are still serving time for cannabis,” Angelos says. “I went to a couple of dispensaries to ask people if they were aware that people are still serving time, sometimes decades, for cannabis, and people were like ‘What?!’”

Angelos, who spoke in an interview this week, knows about this incarceration issue because he’s been there himself: He was in federal prison for almost 13 years for selling marijuana three times to a police informant in his home state of Utah, and allegedly carrying a firearm (a charge for which no evidence was found). He profited just $900 for those transactions, but due to mandatory sentencing laws was sentenced to 55 years.

“The local authorities … put the crosshairs on me because of my involvement in the hip-hop, weed-smoking culture,” Angelos says. In fact, he was a successful music producer in that particular culture at the time, working with Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur. And the authorities took a dim view: His legal team was actually told by an investigator, “[The investigators] looked at [Angelos and hip hop] like I was bringing ebola into Utah.”

Due to the egregious sentence he received – not all that unusual, it turns out – and his celebrity connections, Angelos became a cause célèbre. Big names like Alicia Keys, Bonnie Raitt and Senator Cory Booker, D-N.J., plus celebs from the opposite end of the political spectrum like Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and the Koch brothers, intervened on Angelos’s behalf.

He was released in 2015, having lost a decade away from his children.

Lee later even used Angelos’s story to obtain bipartisan congressional support for, and passage of, the First Step Act, to reform and alleviate criminal justice provisions, including those for cannabis.

Yet still the incarceration of people, especially people of color, for small cannabis offenses continues – including in states where cannabis is legal. And that problem is hardly a point of pride for many law enforcement personnel. The U.S. District Court judge in Angelos’s case was so appalled by the 55-year sentence he had to impose that he resigned his position in protest.

More recently, Dr. Nora Volker, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, wrote, in a June 4 blog post. “Whites and Black/African Americans use drugs at similar rates, but it is overwhelmingly the latter group who are singled out for arrest and incarceration,”

The disproportionate enforcement of anti-drug laws has historically been utilized “as a lever to suppress people of a particular race,” Volker added, and this abuse of law enforcement power “has had devastating effects on communities of color.”

So what can the cannabis industry do? “I feel like the whole cannabis industry is having the same question, which is basically, ‘We know the industry is a part of this conversation, but how?’” says Shawna Vercher. Vercher is a media strategist crisis manager and founder and CEO of Tampa-based Reine Media (including the cannabis-focused arm, Green Reine).

Given her company’s dual interest in social justice and cannabis, Vercher is vocal about discrimination and black incarceration rates. And in this regard, she lists “three things that don’t jump out at people until they start peeling back the layers”:

  • Approximately 40 percent of all U.S. drug arrests in 2018, according to FBI data, were related to cannabis. Ninety percent were for simple possessions, “which works out to be 260,000 people a year,” Vercher says, with African Americans experiencing those disparate arrest rates.
  • Cannabis has “absolutely zero evidence that it is gateway drug,” Vercher says, but nonetheless is a “gateway arrest component,” for possibly illegal search and seizure and those spikes in black arrest rates.
  • The nationwide conversation should include not just decriminalization but expungement of inmates’ records.

“I believe we have to go one step further,” Vercher says, describing the low proportion (4.3 percent, she says, citing an earlier study) of black dispensary owners and stakeholders.

As to what can help fix the racial disparity in minor-offense cannabis incarcerations, Vercher offers such actions as tying the incarceration discussion into the current national conversation about police tactics. This means an end to that “gateway arrest component,” and illegal searches that begin when an officer says, “I think I smell weed in your car.”

Next is to declassify cannabis as a Class I federal drug—not just decriminalize it, Vercher says, but fully legalize it. And, third, is political action in the form, for instance, of the super PAC she herself has established.

Angelos, too, offer a political solution, with his social equity brand, Reeform Cannabis (whose extra “e” is deliberate). Reeform is a CBD brand whose social mission, TheWeldon Project, assists prisoners incarcerated for minor cannabis offenses, offering legal and financial help.

Like Vercher, Angelos is passionate about the issue. And, like Vercher, he points out that the discussion about discrimination against the black community for minor offenses is something the cannabis industry needs to have. “That’s the first thing,” Vercher agrees. “I don’t think that people realize how prevalent it is.

“Also it’s not the big bad myth that we’ve had perpetuated for so long: it’s not ‘big bad drug cartels, trafficking’ and all that. It’s possession.

 

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Joan Oleck
Joan Oleck
Cannabis Journalist
Joan Oleck is a freelance writer currently specializing in the cannabis industry and cannabis tech. She has been an editor and reporter on staff for such publications as Forbes.com, Business Week, Newsday and The Detroit News. She won the Jesse Neal Award for best feature series in a trade publication, Restaurant Business, and a GLAAD Award for a Salon story about discrimination in adoption against single and gay parents

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