Cannabis and Social Justice: Examining the Impact of Drug Policies on Communities

Published: 4/23/2024
By: Harry B. Nuggs

Cannabis and Social Justice: Examining the Impact of Drug Policies on Communities

Let’s talk about a subject that has been a hot topic for some time – cannabis and how its use is regulated. Beyond the debate on its legalization, it goes further than that. It concerns social justice and the surprising ways drug laws have affected certain communities.

The War on Drugs

The “War on Drugs,” which began in the 1970s, was designed to stop the production, distribution, and use of specific drugs. The War on Drugs, however, has been rather tragic for many communities especially those communities of color and low-income neighborhoods.

According to statistics, many more Black and Brown folks are arrested and imprisoned for drug offenses than whites despite evidence from research showing that drug usage rates are quite similar among races. Such an effect has destroyed families; further impoverished already struggling areas economically; and increased poverty as well as institutional racism.

Cannabis Criminalization

A major target of the War on Drugs has been cannabis (also known as marijuana). Historically, it was often used for recreational, medicinal, or spiritual purposes but that changed in 1937 when the US government passed a law criminalizing it. This opened the door to damaging policies and cruel penalties concerning an act that could be opined as less dangerous than legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco.

The criminalization of cannabis has led to widespread racial profiling and discriminatory enforcement strategies. This has allowed police departments to single out individuals belonging to races other than white, who have engaged in non-violent drug-related activities like selling marijuana. 

The Human Cost

There is a very significant human cost associated with these unfair practices. People who are jailed for marijuana-related offenses find it extremely difficult to find employment, housing, or educational opportunities after being imprisoned, making it difficult for them to start over. Moreover, collateral effects of conviction may limit a person's access to loans, public assistance programs, and even voting rights.

Paradox of Legalization

The legalization of marijuana for both medical and recreational purposes has been more common at the state level in recent years. Currently, 25 states have decriminalized cannabis use for recreational purposes, while 38 states have previously authorized it for medical use. Although this action is commendable, it also highlights a paradox: although the legalization of marijuana should benefit white businesspeople, persons of color are disproportionately being arrested and imprisoned for marijuana-related charges.

However, it is important to note that the movement to legalize marijuana is about more than merely changing its name; rather, it is about finding a solution to the injustices caused by its illegality. Thus, the following should be a part of any significant marijuana reform:

  • Wiping off earlier convictions related to cannabis

  • Reinvesting funds received from marijuana taxation back into affected communities

  • Ensuring equal access and opportunities in the legalized marijuana sector

Restorative Justice

In its simplest form, the fight for cannabis legalization is a fight for fairness and social justice. Drug policies have been tools for systemic discrimination leading to racial and class bias, which has made certain communities vulnerable.

True restorative justice means acknowledging the reality of what has happened through the years of discriminatory enforcement to make right the wrongs. This calls for the inclusion of those affected most by marijuana policies that didn’t work in the decision-making process on regulations. This means ending the school-to-prison pipeline that robs young people of their future. And it demands reinvesting in education, job programs, affordable housing, healthcare, and other vital community resources.

Mere reforms on marijuana will not resolve deep-seated injustices within our system like; incarceration at a mass scale, criminalization of poverty, and prejudice in institutions among others. However, it can be an important path towards achieving social justice and human rights. Moreover, continuing to reveal injuries caused by weed prohibition shall enhance efforts aimed at challenging wider injustices while pushing for a fairer society at large.


Minority groups were disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs and the legalization of marijuana, which resulted in institutional racism, family dissolution, and a rise in the jail population. These detrimental practices need to be acknowledged; restorative justice can be pursued by utilizing restorative justice procedures, reinvesting in impacted communities, promoting equitable opportunities for entrepreneurship, and erasing criminal records. Because of this, we will be able to overcome injustices brought about by unjust policies in addition to other issues.

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