The War on Drugs and Inequality in the United States
The “war on drugs,” a term popularized by a 1971 speech given by U.S. President Richard Nixon in which he declared drug abuse “public enemy number one,” has become one of the most significant sources of violence, militarization, and conflict globally. The war on drugs frames drug use and substance abuse not as a public health or education issue, but rather as a criminal problem.
According to data from the Hamilton Project, Black and white Americans sell and use drugs at about the same rate, but Black Americans are almost three times as likely to be arrested and incarcerated for drug-related offenses. So, it comes as no surprise that the majority of research done on the drug war and its impact on marginalized communities has focused on race.
This attention to race has been integral to revealing and critiquing the fundamental racism of drug policies in America. However, as intersectional theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw has long argued, racial categories do not exist in a vacuum, but rather in relationship with other identities such as gender, language, class, and sexuality.
Shaylih Muehlmann, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto, explores the relationship between gender and the drug war in her 2018 paper the Gender of the War on Drugs. She makes the argument that “The drug war literature’s emphasis on race has, for the most part, neglected the intersections between racialized and gendered positionings in the implementation of drug policies and the rise in mass incarceration and political activism.”
In the past couple of years, in particular, many states legalizing cannabis for recreational adult use are making a concerted effort to incorporate social equity provisions in their legislation. The hope is to directly address the issues, such as high incarceration rates or limited access to capital, that marginalized communities are faced with as a result of being disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs.
Cannabis Legalization and Social Equity Programs
Cannabis for recreational, adult-use consumption in the United States has been around for nearly a decade in some states. In recent years, the social movement to reform drug laws— which birthed a billion-dollar industry—has continued to expand both in the United States and abroad.
In the past couple of years particularly, the creation of legal cannabis programs in the United States has forced legislators to grapple with the effects that the war on drugs has had on marginalized communities and craft legislation that addresses these harms with legalization. Some states and jurisdictions have been more successful in this endeavor than others.
In Illinois, one suburb of Chicago, Evanston, is attempting to use the tax revenue derived from legal cannabis sales to set up the country’s first reparations program. Other states such as California, Colorado, and Massachusetts have attempted to address the challenges faced by economically disadvantaged individuals as well as racial minorities.
It has become the new standard, especially with states that have legalized cannabis for recreational purposes in the past few years, to include some kind of social equity provisions in the legislation.
The New Frontier of Social Equity & Legal Cannabis: Gender
In New York, a legalization attempt in 2019 was unsuccessful because some Democratic lawmakers from more racially diverse districts hit hard by the war on drugs were insisting that a more comprehensive social equity approach be included in the bill. They fought hard for the expansive social equity program included in the legalization bill, which eventually passed in 2021. Dependent on the effectiveness of implementation, New York has the potential to be the gold standard for social equity in the cannabis space.
The initial legislation that was passed stipulated that 40% of tax revenue will be diverted into a community grants reinvestment fund. Additionally, at least 50% of cannabis business licenses will be issued to social equity applicants, including veteran-owned companies, distressed farmers, individuals from communities disproportionately affected by the war on drugs, and women.
In November 2021, Sen. Jeremy Cooney (D) introduced legislation in an attempt to fix an unintentional result of the adult-use law, which currently does not create any space for transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming individuals in the social and economic equity provisions. Currently, the bill only recognizes women when referring to groups marginalized based on gender.
To give an example of how this may affect an individual, consider the following. A person who was assigned female at birth (AFAB) and now identifies as a transgender man would not qualify for priority licensure under the social equity clause as it currently stands despite being a part of a marginalized group. New York is making great strides toward installing the most inclusive and progressive social and economic equity program in the country.
An increasing number of states in the U.S. are pursuing cannabis legalization for economic, social, and medical benefits. Without a doubt, we will see more social equity programs modeled after New York’s that attempt to address the harm individuals marginalized by race, class, and gender have faced in the decades-long war on drugs. Whether or not they will be successful remains to be seen and will ultimately depend on how these programs are implemented.