That’s been the situation in Colorado (where blacks are 1.9 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession) where marijuana was legalized in 2012 following a statewide referendum. It’s not hard to find the demographics on the state’s pot entrepreneurs, who—like many new business owners—rely on loans and personal wealth to get their start, an avenue unavailable to many people of color.
For these marijuana entrepreneurs, Colorado is a vibrant market for turning a profit. According to a recent report from the Colorado Department of Revenue, statewide demand for marijuana is at 121.4 tons a year, a 31 percent increase from previous estimates. Indeed, in its first four months of legal marijuana, the state collected $11 million in taxes from commercial pot and $7 million from its medical cousin. It’s not hard to imagine a national market for marijuana that reaped billions of dollars in sales and generated hundreds of millions in tax revenue, with little going to the communities most affected by past prohibition.
In Colorado, voters have earmarked weed revenue for school improvements and other local services. Let’s say America follows suit and adopts the state’s model for legalization and commercialization. What should we, as a country, do with our marijuana windfall? The easy answers are the usual services and benefits: food stamps, unemployment insurance, medical benefits, and tax cuts.
But we should think deeper. If we legalize marijuana, it won’t just be for new revenues and savings. In part, it will be because we recognize the tremendous injury we’ve done to countless young men and women over decades of unfair enforcement of the law. Consider Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to sidestep mandatory minimums on minor drug charges. “Although incarceration has a role to play in our justice system, widespread incarceration at the federal, state, and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable,” he said. “It imposes a significant economic burden—totaling $80 billion in 2010 alone—and it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate.” I wouldn’t be shocked to hear similar language from pro-weed politicians if marijuana legalization becomes a major national issue.
We can’t always heal injury, but we can acknowledge and compensate for it. Any plan for legalization should come with a plan for reparations for those communities most damaged by our misguided war on marijuana. That doesn’t mean individual payments—the logistics are too difficult—as much as it does policies for affected communities, from job training and educational services to something like My Brother’s Keeper, all funded by a surtax on marijuana sales and distribution.
We can’t wash our hands of our past mistakes. The war on drugs—and the war on weed in particular—has been a disaster and a burden for millions of Americans and their communities. We can’t fix all of the damage, but as we wind down the conflict and liberalize our laws, we should do our best to make amends.