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Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota took to Twitter on 4/20 to say the war on marijuana is racist, and that the U.S. needs to legalize cannabis nationwide.

Additionally, she also made an appeal for social justice. “Cannabis criminalization disproportionately impacts communities of color,” Omar wrote. “We must finally legalize cannabis nationwide and expunge records for those incarcerated for cannabis-related offenses."

Omar used an April 15, 2019, Washington Post analysis of National Archive of Criminal Justice Data to highlight the issue.

Cannabis reformers have for decades noted the massive racial disparities across the U.S. when it comes to who actually goes to jail for low-level marijuana offenses. The Washington Post's data journalist, Christopher Ingraham, released the most updated look at how bad things still are last week with his breakdown of the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting data and National Archive of Criminal Justice Data.

As the conversation around cannabis has transitioned from jail cells to bank accounts, people have started to forget the jail cells are still there,  filled with 600,000-plus Americans every year. Support from someone such as Omar is significant, especially now that focus on cannabis is shifting from disproportionate incarceration rates and toward investment potential, said Erik Altieri, Executive Director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

“As a growing number of states end their prohibition of marijuana and move to a system of legalization and regulation, the media has tended to focus on puff pieces about some new line of cannabis suppositories or breathlessly report on the latest marijuana event or tax revenue estimates,” Alteri told Weedmaps News.

Alteri said that shift is doing the citizens of this country a great disservice.

“While we too are pleased to see marijuana moving into the mainstream, we cannot forget that the over 600,000 Americans are still being arrested every year for simple marijuana possession and having their lives ruined as a result,” Altieri said. “Until there is justice for all, we should continue to highlight the egregious harms caused by prohibition and fight for that justice, not spend all our time on superficial coverage on the privileges of some."

TheWashington Post analysis found many places nationwide where marijuana arrests constitute more than 20% of all arrests. A small group of counties saw rates of over 40%, with the highest being in Dooly County, Georgia, at 55%. Vienna, the Dooly County seat, is about 135 miles (217 kilometers) south of Atlanta. Of the county's total 2016 arrests, 230 of the 422 total, 54.5%, were for marijuana possession.

In Hamilton County, New York's least populous county, in a tourist area in the Adirondack Mountains, police arrested 130 people in the county in 2016, but nearly 44% were related to marijuana. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated Hamilton County's population in 2017 at only 4,485.

The third- and fourth-highest marijuana arrest rates were found in central Texas, where rural Hamilton and Sterling counties racked up arrest rates of about 42% each. Texas lawmakers are considering a bill to reduce criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana from a jail sentence to a fine.

In a more urbanized area, just outside of Washington, D.C., 20% of the 24,000 arrests made in Montgomery County, Maryland, were for simple marijuana possession. Washington, D.C., allows adult use of cannabis. Maryland permits medical cannabis.

The march toward marijuana legalization and decriminalization is bolstered by a steady stream of scientific studies that show how legalization can cause, at worst, no increase in societal harms such as crime, and more often, improvements in housing prices, increase arrests for violent crimes, and lower rates of property crimes, particularly around dispensaries.

Another takeaway from the Post's piece:  There is a divide in the U.S. where marijuana arrest rates are higher, stretching from North Dakota to Texas, where the likelihood of encountering trouble with the law over weed is higher than in the rest the U.S. Over the 1,800 miles running from the northern to the southern borders, marijuana makes up at least 10% of all police arrests.

The disproportionate arrest rates and the cascade of harms they cause, particularly among minorities, have become a focus of the 2020 presidential campaign. Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey introduced the Marijuana Justice Act in February 2019.

“The War on Drugs has not been a war on drugs, it's been a war on people, and disproportionately people of color and low-income individuals,” Booker said in a press release.  “The Marijuana Justice Act seeks to reverse decades of this unfair, unjust, and failed policy by removing marijuana from the list of controlled substances and making it legal at the federal level.

However, the data present an incomplete picture of the issue's scope. Participation in the FBI's collection program is not mandatory, so there are a lot of holes. Also, the data don't take into account repeat offenders.


Featured Image: Photos by Lorie Shaull via Flickr

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