This story appeared in the January 17, 2018 issue of AL DÍA
The new year has brought with it wins and losses for marijuana in the U.S.
As 2018 commenced, recreational weed became available to more Americans than ever. Days later, the top official of the U.S. Department of Justice decided to jeopardize this legal status.
On Jan. 1, dispensaries in California, which is the most populated state in the country, were allowed to sell recreational marijuana for the first time. California is the sixth state to allow the sale of recreational weed to adults after Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Alaska. Massachusetts will follow in July 2018. Marijuana remains illegal at the federal level.
The marijuana industry in California is projected to reach $7 billion in the coming years, eclipsing the nation’s entire legal cannabis market in 2016, which amounted to $6.6 billion.
Spitting in the face of this boom for the U.S. economy, Attorney General Jeff Sessions kicked off the new year by rescinding Obama-era policies that discouraged the federal government from interfering with how states enforce marijuana laws.
Though time will tell exactly how Sessions’ move will affect the legal status of pot across the country, the attorney general has opened the door for federal prosecutors to decide for themselves how to prioritize marijuana-related crimes in their individual jurisdictions, regardless of state or local legislation.
According to a 2017 poll from the Marist College Institute of Public Opinion, 52 percent of Americans aged 18 or older have at least tried marijuana, and 44 percent of these individuals continue to use pot throughout their lives.
Despite the widespread use of marijuana, U.S. law enforcement continues to pour resources into fighting weed consumption. The Washington Post reported in September of last year that the arrest rate for marijuana possession in the U.S. increased slightly in 2016, accounting for more than 5 percent of all arrests that year.
The same report found that there were more arrests for marijuana possession in 2016 than arrests for violent crimes.
Today, it seems likely that this preposterous upward trend in police enforcement against weed will continue thanks to Sessions.
While it should be common knowledge by now that these marijuana-related arrests disproportionately affect people of color, here is an excerpt from “The War on Marijuana is Black and White,” a 2013 comprehensive study from the ACLU of marijuana possession arrest rates nationwide between 2001 and 2010:
“On average, a Black person is 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though Blacks and whites use marijuana at similar rates. Such racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests exist in all regions of the country, in counties large and small, urban and rural, wealthy and poor, and with large and small Black populations.”
Also in 2013, the ACLU noted in a report titled “The War on Marijuana Has a Latino Data Problem” that conducting a similar study of marijuana possession arrests within the Latino population is difficult, if not impossible, because data source for national crime statistics used by the federal government does not keep track of ethnicity.
However, according to U.S. News & World Report, Hispanics received 77 percent of federal sentences for marijuana crimes in 2016.
The Local Level
With the uncertainty surrounding the future of the marijuana industry in the U.S., what’s going on with the status of pot in the Philadelphia area?
Pennsylvania lawmakers have made strides in the legalization of medicinal marijuana — more than 10,000 patients have reportedly registered for the Keystone State’s medical marijuana program, which is expected to begin later this year. Some cities in the state, including Philadelphia, have also decriminalized the possession of a small amount of pot.
Despite these advancements, it doesn’t appear that Pennsylvania lawmakers will permit the sale of recreational marijuana anytime soon. However, neighboring New Jersey may be on the fast track to legalization.
Democratic New Jersey State Senator Nicholas Scutari introduced legislation earlier this month that, if approved, would legalize recreational marijuana in the state,
Phil Murphy, who was sworn in as the governor of New Jersey this week, said during his campaign that he aims to have pot legalized during his first 100 days in office. The legalization of recreational marijuana in the Garden State has been projected to generate as much as $300 million in sales tax revenue for New Jersey.
Pennsylvania and New Jersey are only two of the more than half of U.S. states that have legalized medicinal marijuana for various conditions.