Cannabis cleaned house at the 2020 US elections, seeing new forms of legalization in Mississippi, Arizona, New Jersey, Montana, and South Dakota, which set the record as the first state to legalize both medical and recreational cannabis in one go. However, perhaps even more exciting than the legalization itself is the hope that justice will be served to those who have been wrongfully locked up for petty cannabis crimes over the past few decades.
Although cannabis has existed as a valuable form of natural medicine for centuries, it wasn’t until the early 1900s when it began to be viewed in a negative light. It’s no coincidence that a significant amount of Mexican immigrants had made their way into the U.S. during this period, bringing the concept of smoking cannabis, for which the Spanish word was “marijuana,” in a recreational capacity.
Within a few years, the plant began to make national headlines, being painted as a terrifying gateway drug that caused severe hallucinations, rape, and even murder–especially thanks to the 1936 film, Reefer Madness.
Even though the plant had been widely referred to as “cannabis” for years, this new connection between the plant and Black and Brown people changed the narrative completely. Thus was born the negative connotation of the word “marijuana,” and everyone who dared to use it.
Slowly but surely, the states began to change their tune in regards to the “gateway drug,” and forms of discrimination-based prohibition began to pop up throughout the country by the 1930s. At this point, cannabis was considered a dangerous drug in every state.
The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 was significant for cannabis, rendering it officially illegal to use for any purpose, even medical, throughout the United States. It was classified as a Schedule I Drug alongside substances like LSD, ecstasy, and peyote, and remains as such to this day, despite multiple attempts to have this classification changed.
During this time period, much of America’s law enforcement resources were funneled into locking people up for cannabis-related crimes, no matter how petty. Citizens found themselves convicted to years in prison for something as simple as having cannabis seeds on their person. There was also an undeniable emphasis on Black people and other POC being arrested for cannabis crimes, even though it’s been made evident by research that the plant’s usage rates are comparable among all races.
Those with drug-related convictions on their record are forced to endure a terrible amount of adversity throughout the rest of their lives. Convicts have a harder time finding jobs, housing, and college/university funding. They also may lose their right to vote, their right to public assistance, and their right to obtain a state license for trade industries, depending on the state they reside in.
Although cannabis remains federally illegal, the sentiment surrounding the plant has pivoted significantly over the past few decades. And with legal forms cannabis now available in 44 of the 50 states, it’s safe to say the stigma is slowly but surely disappearing.
These changes in public sentiment and legality have put pressure on legal states to have conversations surrounding expungement. Legalization is a great first step, but is unfair to everyone who has a criminal record for possessing a plant that is mainly viewed as harmless and even beneficial in today’s climate.
Luckily, many states have begun to look into expungement, passing bills that bring justice to those who have been wronged. New Jersey and Illinois have both passed progessive expungement bills this year, and although California was the first state to legalize medical cannabis in 1996, they are finally beginning to work retroactively with expungement, reviewing cannabis cases that date back to 1975.
Other states like Colorado, Oregon, New Hampshire, and Maryland have also allowed those with cannabis-related criminal records to either seal or expunge these records, which is a small start for a nation that still requires a good amount of reform. As recently as 2018, over 660,000 people were arrested for cannabis crimes throughout the year, and 92% of these arrests were for simple possession. And although most states have some legal form of the plant, 40% of all 2018 drug arrests in the U.S. were cannabis-related.
Discrimination against cannabis users remains an issue in our country, and the confusion between federal legality and the policies of the individual states only contributes to this issue. Were cannabis to be federally legalized, or, at the very least, de-classified as a Schedule I Drug, this would not only allow easier access to the plant for those in need but would bring some well-deserved justice for those who continue to serve time for something that is a medical lifesaver for so many citizens.