Legalized Marijuana Should Benefit Communities Devastated by Criminalized Marijuana

By Kenya Bradshaw

In 1992, the most important man in my life died. My grandfather had been a big man all my life; his hugs gave me strength and reminded me the world would be ok. But cancer waged war on his body, and he died a frail man. His years of smoking cigarettes came back to kill him.

After my grandfather’s death, I hated all forms of smoking because they took love away from me. I hated cigarettes so much that I developed uninformed prejudices against marijuana use. It didn’t help that, from an early age, I, like everyone else, had been bombarded with the message that pot is dangerous, a gateway drug, and an enabler of violence. Those myths have largely been debunked, but many of us in the education community harbor entrenched prejudices against the drug.

My views have evolved with new information and my own research. Today, I believe the marijuana industry is one I, and the larger education community, simply cannot afford to ignore.

African Americans are roughly four times more likely to be arrested for violating marijuana possession laws than whites, despite similar consumption rates across the groups. These arrests, and ensuing convictions, have destroyed countless lives in communities of color by undermining job opportunities, immigration status, eligibility for public housing and student financial aid.

However, in the last two decades, new legislation has paved the way for legal recreational and/or medicinal marijuana use in 29 states, including Arizona, California, Florida, and New York. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center showed that about 60 percent of Americans support legalization nationwide, and with more than half of the states already eliminating or reducing marijuana restrictions, it is a very real possibility that legalization will become a reality across the United States.

Industry sales are quickly skyrocketing. Legal marijuana sales in the United States reached close to $10 billion in 2017, and that number is expected to almost triple by 2021. In addition to this influx of profits for growers and distributors, taxes from these sales are supplying states with needed revenue.

As educators, we should be focusing on how this new revenue can be directed to supporting access to a world-class education system for the Black and Latino children and communities who have suffered the greatest consequences from our nation's flawed response to marijuana use. Interaction with the criminal justice system remains the most devastating consequence of all.

According to the The Pew Charitable Trusts, “2.7 million children are growing up in U.S. households in which one or more parents are incarcerated. Two-thirds of these parents are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, primarily drug offenses. One in nine black children has an incarcerated parent, compared to one in 28 Latino children and one in 57 white children.” We know that a number of problems arise for families when a family member interacts with the criminal justice system:  academic achievement is likely to suffer; young adults may suffer social exclusion through homelessness, health-care uninsuredness, and political nonparticipation;  and siblings of incarcerated youth may act out and face harsh school discipline policies that may lead to expulsion or arrest. Families confront this litany of problems in addition to bearing the extreme financial burden of incarceration..

States, such as Colorado and Oregon, are using over $150 million in new revenue to build and improve schools, expand health care, and create more drug treatment centers. That’s a great start. But, we should also seize on this opportunity to devise policies that will undo the devastation families have suffered and the denial of educational opportunities for hundreds of thousands of students in communities ravaged by marijuana law enforcement.

The tax revenues generated by marijuana sales present an opportunity to invest new revenue into educating our communities. We cannot sit back and hope that the dollars come to support our children; we must take an active role and plan for where we know these dollars should go.

For example, every state should create a Children’s Trust with a committee whose majority represents the communities that have been most affected by prior punitive laws. The Children’s Trust should develop, in collaboration with communities, state educational prioritization plans that are grounded in equity and student voice and recognize that only a long-term approach can reverse the damage.

These plans should include training and financial grants for entrepreneurs of color (who are less likely to have access to financing), job training and access to college, and transition support and education for those recently released from prison. Equally critical, they should encompass more than pre-K, which is where most states have allocated their additional tax revenue so far. And, at the very least, criminal records for possession of small amounts of marijuana should be wiped clean. Since goals drive action, I believe that states should set goals to invest in formerly incarcerated individuals, so that they reach average educational attainment and income within 10 years of their release.

In addition to the creation of a Children’s Trust, we could advocate for community innovation funds, which re-invest in communities most adversely affected by prior marijuana arrests. Similar initiatives have already been successful in cities like Oakland, where the city council approved an equity program to help convicted drug felons enter the legal weed industry.

This step is extremely important considering that people of color are not necessarily benefitting from the profits of legal marijuana sales. Right now, only an estimated one percent of growers around the country are people of color, largely due to the exorbitant fees for licensing and registration. This is yet another area where we need to push in order to create greater equity for communities that have disproportionately suffered from previous marijuana laws.

Therefore, I call on those of us in the education community who love our children and our communities and who want true economic and educational freedom to act now. We need to be knowledgeable about the status of the marijuana debate in our local communities and develop strategies for where new money should be spent if we live in a state which has already made the decision to legalize. We must push our representatives to be concerned about equity for people of color and show them where resources are urgently needed. We must wake up and realize that marijuana legalization is expanding and ensure that, along with it, equity and community healing become more ubiquitous phenomena.

If we do all of this, decriminalization provides an opportunity to support those same communities (and their students) who have been devastated by criminalization. Together, we can bring back some of the love our communities have lost.

Kenya Bradshaw is Vice President of Community Engagement and Policy at TNTP and a founding member of EdLoC’s Leadership Committee