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Fake Reparations & How Legal Weed Could Increase Racial Inequality

Picture of Lawrence Grandpre

Lawrence Grandpre

Director of Research
Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle

The Rise of Legal Weed As Political Talking Point

Similar to Medicare for all, marijuana legalization has quickly gone from being an untouchable third rail topic to the litmus test for progressive politicians.

New Jersey senator and 2020 presidential candidate Corey Booker reintroduced his Marijuana Justice Act in March 2019. When it was first introduced in 2017 it was hailed as a sea change in mainstream Democratic party politics and won the support of fellow 2020 Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris.

“The war on drugs in our criminal justice system right now is like cancer on the soul of our country” Booker says in the introduction video for the bill.

Booker and other advocates frame the proposed legislation through the lens of ‘reparations’ for the devastation wrought on Black communities through the infamous ‘War on Drugs.’

Upon examination, the reality of the bill fails to match the rhetoric, and this bill can be seen as one among many contemporary attempts to co-opt the rhetoric of reparations to gain the support of the Black community for half baked policies more focused on political gain and posturing than making revolutionary change for Black communities.

Blowing Smoke: On The False Promise of Legalization and Reform

Going line by line on the bill, we see lots of good sounding ideas which, upon deeper examination, fail to make much if any real structural change to the power arrangements which impact Black communities.

The bill threatens to claw back federal funding for police departments which engage in disproportionate drug arrests. While hailed as an example of progressive anti-incarceration policy, from the perspective of a reparations framework, this falls short of being acceptable. First, while highly coveted, federal funding makes up only a small percentage of police budgets, accounting for just $2 billion of the $ 180 billion which is spent on policing every year, over 95% of which comes from the local and state level. Second, by focusing on disproportionate cannabis arrests, the bill brackets off larger conversations around disproportionate minority contact for non-cannabis related offenses.

Under this cannabis equity bill’s “radical” framework, a state could retain federal police funding if it simply applied draconian anti-marijuana legalization equally across races.

Addressing the over-utilization of the carceral solution in drug policy, masks the larger societal trend to use law enforcement to solve nearly all social problems.

Consequently, a focus on cannabis legalizations risks trading off with a focus on the provision of critical local services. This tendency to overstate the social justice impacts of legalization has been pointed out by activists in the group, P.O.C:

“Every drug legalization advocacy argument implies by omission that, liberalizing drug laws to the ninth degree. This will consequently protect people of color from over-policing, racial profiling, and institutional violence. Law enforcement has been guilty of atrocious behaviors during the drug war. However, is anyone in the community of color sincerely of the belief that police will not abuse, railroad or continue to treat them like common criminals, while someone also can smoke pot or shoot heroin up without any legal sanctions?

Drug legalization advocates, by failing to address the epidemic of police violence as a whole visited on communities of color, live in an illusion if they believe other justifications won’t be created.”

Booker’s bill fails to address systemic over policing and brutality. Instead, by simply taking a small amount of federal funding away from the most biased departments, the bill reveals more about how skewed our policy compass around policing is, and that this provision would be seen as “radical.”

Even after decriminalization, racial disparities remain. Ninety-six out of 100 people arrested for cannabis possession in Baltimore from 2015-2017 were black, data from the FBI show. Graphic by Charlie Herrick, Reporting from the Baltimore Fishbowl.

Neoliberalism in Black

Second, the framework the bill uses for reparations is fundamentally individualistic and neoliberal. The bill makes space for individuals to seek civil redress for marijuana convictions, but limits its scope to individuals who can demonstrate that they have been ‘aggrieved by a disproportionate arrest rates’. In previous versions of the bill, it even foreclosed the possibility for individuals to be compensated for their wrongful imprisonment in favor of ‘declarative relief’ (a fancy legal term which allows judges to determine the rights of parties without awarding any damages or ordering anything be done).

It is important to note that, even the newest version of the Booker bill, which does support individual financial settlements, still reflects an individualist view of ‘reparations’ which masks the massive communal impact of the War on Drugs.

Rutgers professor Todd Clear in his book Imprisoning Community, explains that disproportionate incarceration harms not only individuals but creates a cascade of impacts which lock entire communities into cycles of poverty. By severing existing social ties and creating ‘coercive mobility’, hyper-incarceration creates a level of communal disruption which prevents the formation of civil society and employment opportunities which can create necessary alternatives to illegal drug sales. These provisions in Booker’s bill fails to account for how entire communities are impacted by the ripple effects of the War on Drugs.

Finally, even the best part of Booker’s bill, the pledge to re-circulate the tax revenue from legal marijuana sales back to communities impacted by the war on drugs, falls severely short on truly ‘repairing’ impacted communities. The bill allocates $500 million to programming for eight categories of public services.

Getting Charity Confused with Reparations

These categories of programming reflect a vision that social services are key to restoring impacted communities, and while these programs (including job training, re-entry services, expungement, public libraries, and health education) may be politically popular, they fundamentally misunderstand what impacted communities need to thrive.

There is a critical distinction between simply allocating more funding for social programs and reparations. If the community has been harmed by a historical legacy of the war on drugs, giving that community the autonomy to choose for themselves which programming they will receive is essential to restoring the community to a position of empowerment.

By outlining what will be funded with the tax revenue from legalized marijuana from the top down, the bill by definition runs counter to what should be the central theory of reparations; that the community itself should have control over the funding. One can easily imagine many in the community wanting to create entrepreneurial opportunities so that the people currently selling marijuana illegally can use their entrepreneurial skills in productive ways.

This independent entrepreneurship, which would circulate money around the Black community, should be seen as distinct from corporate capitalism, which is exploitative of the Black community. Given the clearly entrepreneurial and independent-mindedness of individuals in the street economy, a policy truly worth calling reparations would put independent, cooperative Black business creation at its center.

Unfortunately, business training and capital for startups is not part of the services Booker outlines. Booker’s bill reflects the pervasive assumption that what black communities need is charity. The assumption is that by exposing the Black community to more services, they will learn the social skills which will allow them to matriculate up the ladder of success (i.e. to navigate white institutions). The idea that simply by being “nicer” to black folks, and giving them more of the services white communities have will allow them to succeed, is tied to an assumption that if Black communities simply looked and acted more like white communities, they would be more successful. As such, there is rarely a criticism of the politics that allow the infrastructure for the critical services of communities to be dependent on non-elected heads of social service organizations.

The corporatization of social service provision makes this conversation essential.  Rather than being praised for offering a new pot of money for well-meaning do-gooders to do work in Black communities, Booker’s bill should be criticized for furthering the Black community’s disempowerment. It would give millions of dollars to empower a small sliver of professional managerial types to further their careers in the wake of decades of suffering inflicted upon poor Black communities. This can most clearly be seen in his focus on “reentry services”, a term which conjures images of formerly incarcerated individuals being warmly reintegrated into society.  In reality, many state re-entry efforts have been taken over by large for-profit entities, some of whom are the same folk who run private prisons and who continue oppressive patterns of surveillance and control under the guise of ‘resocialization’.

Reparations or Hand Out to The 'White Savior Industrial Complex'?

While reentry is uniquely susceptible to co-option, the so-called ‘white savior industrial complex’ raises serious concerns about whether the programming funded by the Booker plan would actually improve community conditions. By not specifying the nature of how funding decisions will get made, the bill defaults to neoliberal notions of equal opportunity and meritocratic competition to see which service providers get these funds. This framing is blind to historical inequality and is almost certain to lead to small, minority-run service providers to be ‘out-competed’ by larger social service providers.

This raises the possibility that programming funded by this bill will not reflect the culture and desires of the aggrieved Black and Brown community, and thus will not meet their needs. If, because of this bill, millions of dollars get pumped into schools, and as a result, more Black and Brown kids learn common core lessons (off new, shiny iPads of course) about how Christopher Columbus was a great explorer who “discovered” the Americas, is this what we’re calling “social justice”? If thousands of inmates are released only to be subject to invasive home detention and high tech remote monitoring to line the pockets of private prison companies, is this “radical change”? Given Booker’s connection to Wall Street, big tech and charter schools, isn’t this the most likely result of this bill? Even if all this is arguably better than the status quo, can we call this “reparations” with any degree of intellectual self-respect?

This influx of funding could strengthen larger, white-run nonprofits at the expense of small Black and Brown service providers, perversely increasing racial inequality through a bill claiming to be ‘reparations’. Also, like charter schools, the institutions set up by this “Community Reinvestment Fund” could become engines for gentrification, with new libraries and community institutions serving to entice urban professionals into neighborhoods formerly marked as “the ghetto”, raising rents and costs of living and again potentially furthering racial inequity.

At the end of the day, while the Booker bills have never been serious proposals, its implications should be taken seriously. Originally presented while Republicans still have control over all three branches of government, the goal of these bills have never to pass.  Its purpose was to create good public relations for the Democrats before the mid-terms in 2018. Now, specifically, the goal is to boost Booker’s presidential run in 2020. A more positive view of his motivations might be that he is seeking to expand the political discourse. But to the extent that his bill reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what communities need, this expanded disclosure might simply elaborate on how we misunderstand the problem.

Who Gets the Bag?: Individual Opportunity or Community Empowerment?

An example of this can be seen in New York, where defeated Democratic candidate for governor Cynthia Nixon proposed that giving those who had formerly experienced incarceration access to entrepreneurial opportunities in the legal cannabis market was equivalent to reparations for the War on Drugs. While in subsequent comments she did mention the importance of reinvesting tax revenue, her focus on incorporating Black and Brown people into the industry belies structural inequity in ownership of the marijuana industry.

While perhaps Nixon and others who make this argument assume a degree of minority ownership in the industry, the reality is that in most cases, minority business people would work as sub-contractors and subsidiaries for larger, almost universally white-owned marijuana companies. In this scenario, marijuana entrepreneurship might actually perversely accelerate the flight of money from Black and Brown communities, as one could reasonably infer that Black market cannabis entrepreneurs are more likely to spend their profits in the community than the owners of international cannabis conglomerates. Additionally, without the reinvesting of tax revenue in these impacted neighborhoods, legalization risks eliminating one of the few sources of economic opportunity in impacted communities, the current illicit cannabis market.

Replacing the prison industrial complex with the non-profit industrial complex or representation in white marijuana companies is not reparations; it’s political posturing.

Instead, marijuana legalization should be seen as a unique opportunity to demonstrate the community’s ability to be the solutions to their own problems. In the policy recommendations produced by Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, we introduced a number of provisions to prevent gentrification and push tax revenue from potential statewide legalization to grassroots Black and Brown organizations. If a small organization like LBS can be centering these questions, we hope that Booker and the other presidential candidates, with their bevy of resources, can begin to center these as well.

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