In order to answer the question of whether or not marijuana should be decriminalized, I wanted to take a look at the path it took to being criminalized. I think that when you understand the history, you get a better sense of what the debate is really about. And for me, the answer to the question is rooted in its history.
History Steeped in Racism
The cannabis plant was actually one of the leading agricultural crops up until the late 1800's. In early 1600's, farmers were actually required to plant it. The plant was used in most fabric, paper, and textiles. Cannabis was used in oil form heavily in the US for its medicinal purposes into the 1900's.
It wasn't until the heavy Mexican immigration in the early 1900's that it became illegal. People started saying that smoking marijuana made Mexicans crazy and made them kill. Despite heavy use of cannabis, mostly for medical purposes with some recreational use, in the white population, the term marijuana was used to invoke a negative connotation in use of Mexicans. It was because of this that states started making marijuana prohibition laws. Then in the 1930's, racism and political aspirations started the war on drugs at a federal level that we've been fighting in one form or another ever since.
Harry Anslinger and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics
Harry Anslinger became head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1929. It originally was in charge of alcohol prohibition and when that came to an end, it needed a new purpose. Anslinger had, up until this point, stated that saying marijuana caused people to go crazy was a fallacy. But he saw it as an opportunity to advance a new agenda and remain relevant. He asked 30 doctors if marijuana made people act crazy. Only 1 of the 30 said yes. He used the case of Victor Licata- a Florida boy that hacked his family to death- as an example of what happens when you smoke weed. The catch was that Licata had a long history of psychosis, police had already wanted hospitalize him for it, and this was the cause, not the weed, for the killings. The public was fed lies that smoking marijuana caused men of color to be violent against white women. The public opinion latched onto these ideas and, despite the opposition of the American Medical Association that argued for the health benefits of marijuana, the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was created making it illegal at the federal level.
Harry Anslinger's promotion of marijuana making men of colored more violent took hold of not just the public opinion, but started a process of jailing men of color. In the first year after the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was enacted, blacks were 3 times more likely to be arrested than whites for drug use and Hispanics were 9 times more likely. Marijuana was not limited to men of color but the fear caused real discrimination evidenced by the numbers.
Richard Nixon and the Controlled Substances Act
After a brief period during WW2 when hemp was needed for war supplies, the fear over drugs came back in the 60's. The "Law and Order" Richard Nixon declared a war against drug abuse and in 1970 enacted the Controlled Substance Act. This put drugs in different schedules/ classifications based on various criteria including potential for abuse and regulated the manufacturing, importation, possession, use, and dispensing of drugs.
Originally, marijuana was placed in schedule 1 as a placeholder until the Shafer Commission could be completed to determine its effects. When the investigation was completed, it was determined that marijuana should not be placed in schedule 1 and its classification as an illicit drug at all was questioned. Despite this, Nixon decided to keep it as a schedule 1 drug and penalize those in possession of it.
A former Nixon top aide has stated that black people were one of the top two enemies of his White House and since he couldn't make being black illegal, criminalizing drugs was his answer.
Non-violent drug offenses went from putting 50,000 people in jail in 1980 to over 400,000 by 1997. That's a steep incline. Under his administration, drugs saw draconian type laws and harsh penalties. It turned drug abuse from a mental health issue to a law enforcement issue. These are policies that remained, or got worse, under Bush Sr., Clinton, and Bush Jr.
A study from 2010 shows that despite the fact that marijuana use is about equal for whites versus men of color, blacks are convicted at a rate 4 times higher than whites- 6 times higher in some states.
Should Marijuana be Decriminalized
Make no doubt about it, the history of criminalizing marijuana was absolutely about racism. These racists policies continue today. We are penalizing people of color at a much higher frequency for more minor offenses than we are whites. It's a cycle created to keep people of color at a disadvantage out of fear and hatred. It is unacceptable.
Additionally, states that decriminalize marijuana see a decrease in opioid-related deaths. It has been shown to help improve various medical conditions and decrease pain in a non-addicting fashion. There have been no cases of death by marijuana overdose and it has often been referenced as being less harmful than alcohol. This is not a drug that was ever medically necessary to be placed with a status of an "illicit drug". It simply does not work that way.
So, do I think marijuana should be decriminalized? Absolutely. History tells us marijuana was made illegal for the purpose of making minorities criminals. Prison numbers tell us marijuana laws are a way to imprison minorities. Science tells us there is a medicinal purpose to marijuana and it is not harmful. I see no other logical conclusion than to decriminalize it and make right what has been done in the past.
We are at a terrifying time when we have a president that is taking a harder stance on the "war on drugs" than even Reagan. We are being told that drug dealers should be given the death penalty. We are being told that we can stem the opioid crisis by building a wall and keeping Mexicans out. The focus is heavy on punishment. We have entered another era of using drugs as a means of exerting racist policies. This cannot continue. The last time Reagan made this type of rhetoric, the number of minorities in prison skyrocketed. This will happen again if we don't act. We need to elect candidates that are willing to fight against these policies.