The prohibition of cannabis throughout the 20th and 21st centuries and the failed ‘War on Drugs’ has resulted in the unjust arrests of countless people, a large majority of them minorities. While the voices who still call for cannabis to remain illegal may claim to do so from some moral high ground, done with the aim of protecting children or some idea of innocence that has never even existed in modern culture; the reality is that cannabis prohibition started as a way to arrest and vilify minorities. This is not some crazy tinfoil-hat conspiracy. There is undeniable evidence, both in policy and in the results of prohibition, that prove the war on drugs has only succeeded if its true mission was to keep arresting racial minorities.
The 13th Amendment in the US Constitution abolished slavery unless someone was convicted of a crime. This second part gave fuel to disgruntled slave owners and worked as the catalyst for the persecution and unjust arrests of minorities that carry on still to this day. Private prisons now dominate the US justice system, meaning there is a vested interest and literal money to be made by having people put in jail. Prisoners are forced to work for hardly any money, are overcharged for basic necessities and then, in turn, are not even hired by the same companies when released from prison. As explained on the Drug Policy Alliance website, Nearly 80% of people in federal prison and almost 60% of people in state prison for drug offenses are black or Latinx.
“Research shows that prosecutors are twice as likely to pursue a mandatory minimum sentence for black people as for white people charged with the same offense. Among people who received a mandatory minimum sentence in 2011, 38% were Latino and 31% were black.” – Drug Policy Alliance
Yet, when looking back at cases in the public eye that actually led to public outrage, there is a clear absence of any involving minorities. The majority often revolve around white Americans, many of them being famous men. This does not indicate equal enforcement of cannabis laws, however. In my opinion, it actually highlights the public’s tendency to only decry injustice when they see themselves in the person being arrested. Every day, people of colour are still being charged with simple cannabis possession in America. The same plant that is legal in 11 states and the entire country of Canada.
The problem has been prevalent for a long time, yet is only now really getting the attention it deserves. This month, Democratic Senator and presidential candidate Cory Booker explained: “Marijuana in our country is already legal for privileged people”. He goes on to say “The ‘War on Drugs’ has been a war on black and brown people.”
Booker’s comments came in response to former Vice President and Presidential hopeful Joe Biden. When asked about legalizing cannabis on a federal level at a recent campaign event in Nevada (where it is already legal) he explained he would not legalize cannabis as “There’s not nearly been enough evidence that has been acquired as to whether or not it is a gateway drug,”. This tired and unfounded claim represents a lot of the modern-day arguments for cannabis prohibition.
Biden, Just Stop Dude
A head-in-the-sand approach to the ‘War on Drugs’ seems more popular than addressing the root cause and therefore seeing the ugly truth behind it. While some modern-day politicians parrot this same mentality, there is a massive call on a federal level for legalization coming from other top Democratic candidates, including Sanders, Warren and the aforementioned Booker who joked he thought Biden might have actually been high himself when he made his statements. Biden, for his part, has tried to walk back his statements, albeit clumsily, stating that he was simply saying other people may think its a gateway drug, but not him. Still, his words illustrated more than he likely intended.
Many of the most known cannabis legal cases do not show the publics’ willingness to protest unjust laws for all. They show the publics’ willingness to only engage when they see themselves threatened.
Still, it is important to look back at these cases for several reasons. One is that, without looking back, we cannot learn how to move forward. That sounds like something you might read in a cheap fortune cookie but I stand by it. John Sinclair’s arrest was undeniably unjust and caused an uproar that helped to change the public’s view of cannabis prohibition. In retrospect, we now know how many other countless minorities faced similar or worse charges for the same crimes. Did they all deserve the same attention as John Sinclair? Definitely. Did they actually get it? Certainly not. Still, despite our past failures and American government’s misguided ‘War on Drugs’ ; we can learn what an active and motivated force of people can do, how society reacted in response, and then hopefully take something from it so we can speak out against injustice against any person going forward, regardless of race or status.
Ten for Two
After graduating from college, John Sinclair became the manager of a rock band from Detroit called MC5. Already a radical activist, Sinclair played a big role in the band’s anti-establishment and counterculture music. His stint as the band’s manager was short-lived though. Three years after taking on the role, Sinclair and the band parted ways due to differences in opinion. A passionate and outspoken activist, Sinclair then co-founded the White Panther Party in 1968, an anti-racist, socialist, counterculture group.
In 1969, Sinclair was arrested for the possession of two joints and sentenced to 10 years in jail. Due, partially to the length of the sentence, but mostly through connections he’d made in several counter-culture movements, as well as the support of several famous figures; his sentence caused public outcry.
The Public Takes Notice
Outraged by the long jail term, private and public rallies and protests were held to free him. During the Who’s set at Woodstock, outspoken activist Abbie Hoffman jumped on stage. He grabbed the mic and called for justice for Sinclair. The Who’s guitarist, Pete Townshend, did not share the same passion for criminal justice reform. He grabbed the mic from Hoffman and kicked him off stage.
On December 13, 1971, the famous John Sinclair Freedom Rally was held at Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor, Michigan. This event was headed by influential celebrities and performers of the 60s counterculture era. Famous artists who performed at the event included John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Stevie Wonder, Teegarden & Van Winkle and The UP, among others. Political activists like Ed Sanders, Bobby Seale, Sheila Murphy, Jerry Rubin, and Father James Groppi (a Roman Catholic priest/civil rights activists) were also present at the event. Three days after the event, and after serving two and a half years of his 10-year imprisonment, Sinclair was finally released.
Progress Made in Prohibition
The Michigan Supreme Court’s ruling that the cannabis laws of the state were unconditional led to Sinclair’s early release. According to the court, Sinclair had been deceived by the police into giving them the two joints. The court stated that the police entrapped Sinclair into committing the offense and breaking the law for the purpose of arresting him. Because the entrapment violates due process, the trial court dismissed the sale count.
Sinclair’s case was one of the factors that pushed the city of Ann Arbor, Michigan to relax its cannabis prohibition laws. The state penalties for possession were harsh, as evidenced by what happened to Sinclair, sentencing that received national attention. The public demanded change.
While people had been arrested and charged for many years for cannabis possession, it took this case to ignite enough of an uproar to begin a massive cultural shift in thinking in regards to cannabis prohibition. While there were many factors that led to this case’s notoriety, the severity of the sentence being one, it seems clear that Sinclair’s industry and social connections played a significant role in the public’s interest. This begs the question of what would have happened if John was a minority without the same connections? He would have likely found himself in the same place as so many other minorities at the time. John Sinclair was not the only case that pushed the cannabis movement forward. There are other notable figures whose cannabis charges garnered public attention.
Making an Example of Celebrities
Other, more well-known entertainment industry figures were also caught up in high profile public cannabis legal battles. Donovan Leitch is a famous Scottish pop star during the 1960s. Known for his distinctive and unique style of blending different music genres like pop, jazz, as well as folk and psychedelia. In the mid-1960s, a documentary about him (A Boy Named Donovan) showed the singer together with his friends sharing a joint at a party. Little did he know that this documentary would invite trouble. He was arrested for cannabis possession, making him the first British pop star to be charged with marijuana offenses. Soon after his arrest, other famous singers were also charged with cannabis possession. This included famous groups like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. These cases were orchestrated to make examples out of high profile figures, to scare the public away from cannabis use. They also worked to hide the real victims of unjust cannabis laws.
Moving Forward and Past the ‘War on Drugs’
These cases, and others like it, work to highlight some of the injustices and major shortcomings of the judicial system and cannabis prohibition, however, leave out the groups most affected. We know now how many other people were affected by similar charges that were not given the same platform to reach out for help. We must use what we’ve learned, as well as our failure to recognize how much race played into cannabis arrests throughout the last hundred years, to better ourselves and make the world a safer and more just place for everyone.
The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent those of Just Cannabis and its employees.