Killer Mike Explains the Racist History of the Chronic War Against Legalization
In a new essay he penned for Rolling Stone, Killer Mike (born Michael Render) addresses the racially motivated disproportions in the marijuana industry, a topic that has become a major talking point as the movement for nationwide legalization continues to gain steam. By 2020, the recreational marijuana industry is expected to surpass $40 billion in profits, making it a very lucrative line of work. However, as Render points out, White Americans are proving to be the benefactors of “the marijuana boom,” while Black Americans and others are finding themselves effectively shut out of opportunity.
Citing a BuzzFeed report, Render explains that “just one percent of America’s 3,200 to 3,600 marijuana dispensaries are black-owned.” The unfortunate trend is, Render argues, yet another insidious result of the “war on drugs,” the tentacles of which continue to negatively affect Black and Brown Americans. “[P]eople convicted of nonviolent drug crimes are often disqualified from participation in the marijuana industry altogether,” and the overwhelming majority of those with nonviolent drug crimes on their records are minorities. Render calls the prohibition of marijuana in the U.S. “a history rooted in the deliberate demonization and criminalization of black and Hispanic men,” and argues that ” barring access to people convicted of nonviolent drug crimes ends up reproducing many of the same racial inequalities that have characterized marijuana laws for decades.”
Since 1937, when the Marijuana Tax Act was passed by the United States Congress, marijuana has been criminalized at the federal level to varying degrees, thanks in no small part to a man named Harry Anslinger, whom Render says ” blatantly exaggerated the dangers of marijuana use – to include murder, suicide and “deeds of maniacal insanity” – and linked them to “degenerate races,” particularly black and Hispanic men. Anslinger’s racist claims about marijuana included the warning that “reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as White men,” a horrific statement, let alone coming from a public official (Anslinger served as the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, which would eventually transform in to the Drug Enforcement Agency as we know it today). Furthermore, he argued marijuana led “White women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”
While the unthinkable language of Anslinger seems out of step with contemporary rhetoric, its effects have lasted for decades and were, Render argues, a subliminal force behind legislation in the 1970s, particularly during President Richard Nixon’s tenure in office. Calling Nixon “the founding father of America’s contemporary drug war,” Render explains the politician’s strict position on marijuana laws ignored growing evidence of the plant’s medicinal properties and its exceedingly low potential to lead to addiction. However, Render says, “Nixon’s position was less about public health than it was about settling political scores,” and “criminalizing drugs like marijuana allowed the administration to go after the groups Nixon detested the most: antiwar activists and Black people.”
Decisions made in the ’70s have proven to carry implications into the 2010s, and Render cites a 2013 report by the ACLU to support that claim. “Black Americans are almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, even though marijuana use among White and Black people is essentially equal,” he writes. Because rates of marijuana-related convictions soared under Nixon’s advisement, the U.S. continues to deal with “staggering numbers of incarcerated Americans, most of them people of color.” But now that the movement for legalization is becoming a reality, there is a new facet to the issue presenting itself in similarly discriminatory ways: “the people most likely to be victims of marijuana prohibition are the least likely to profit in its aftermath.”
Render uses Washington state as an example, explaining that there, “anyone convicted of a felony in the past decade is generally ineligible for a license to operate a dispensary (although there is a process by which people convicted of a marijuana offense can petition for licensure).” Similarly, in Colorado, ” people who have only marijuana-related convictions may be eligible for a license, if what they were convicted of wouldn’t be illegal today.” There are beacons of hope for renegotiation such laws, as in Maine and Massachusetts who “are more explicitly forgiving when it comes to marijuana-related offenses.” Nevertheless, Black Americans continue to deal with unforgiving racial bias on an implicit basis, and that’s the hardest kind to shake off.
California’s Proposition 64 is an example of the kind of approach to handling convictions relating to marijuana the whole country should adopt, Render argues. Under it, “many people with marijuana-related convictions are eligible to have their records wiped clean, and those convicted of most nonviolent drug crimes are still eligible to operate marijuana dispensaries,” he explains. That kind of legislation “acknowledges the full scope of the damage caused by our discriminatory drug policies,” a necessary acknowledgment considering the fact that “more than 25 percent of non-incarcerated Black men now have a felony conviction on their record, a stigma that helps push unemployment among African-American men to levels twice as high as their White counterparts.”