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On Juneteenth, Biden Needs To Build On His Modest Marijuana Reforms With A Call For Drug War Reparations (Op-Ed)



“If President Biden wants to truly celebrate the spirit of Juneteenth, he needs to take bolder action instead of well-intended half-measures that don’t come close to solving the problem.”

By Chelsea Higgs Wise, Marijuana Justice

Juneteenth is a day of joy when we celebrate the end of slavery in the United States, but for too many Black Americans, the harms of slavery never fully went away. Instead, they morphed into newer forms of discrimination and oppression.

Shortly after the end of slavery, Jim Crow laws emerged that kept newly freed Black Americans from having the same rights as their white counterparts. While the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century ultimately ended the Jim Crow era, like slavery, it too was replaced with a newer form of oppression that targeted people of color—the war on drugs.

While drug laws had been targeting Blacks and immigrants since the early 20th century, it wasn’t until President Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) in 1971 that it became an all-out assault, resulting in mass incarceration. This modern-day slavery has caused untold emotional and economic damage to the individuals and communities that were brutally targeted by law enforcement. More than a half-century later, these damages have been compounded and felt by multiple generations of Black and Brown people in this country.

The ongoing criminalization of marijuana has been one of the main drivers of racially discriminatory arrests and convictions. While about half of the states have legalized marijuana over the last dozen years, it still remains federally illegal throughout the country. Additionally, President Biden pledged to decriminalize marijuana during his 2020 campaign. Unfortunately, he has yet to follow through on this promise.

Yes, President Biden deserves some credit for issuing pardons for simple marijuana possession. But let’s be clear—pardons don’t restore rights and benefits nor do they end future marijuana arrests. Not a single person was released from prison, and little has been done to address the economic harms that have been caused by the hundreds of thousands of marijuana arrests that continue to take place every year.

While President Biden has yet to fulfill his promise to end marijuana criminalization, he still can take bigger steps in that direction. Right now, Biden’s Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is proposing to move marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III of the CSA. While this move would technically put marijuana in a less restrictive category, the reality is that Schedule III maintains virtually all of the same criminal penalties as Schedule I.

However, for a limited time, the public has the opportunity to officially tell the DEA and President Biden it’s time to decriminalize marijuana by removing it—or descheduling it—from the CSA. To assist with this, United for Marijuana Decriminalization, a coalition of organizations dedicated to ending the war on marijuana, created a tool that makes it quick and easy to comment.

But descheduling marijuana alone will only end future harms. If we are ever going to come anywhere close to repairing the damage caused by decades of racist drug law enforcement, the economic harms suffered by those arrested must be atoned for.

Government-funded programs offering services to those disproportionately targeted by racist drug war enforcement exemplify how reparations can be implemented. Direct payments to individuals who experienced arrest and incarceration for drug offenses are also crucial for reparations. This concept is supported by existing research and data on the economic harms inflicted on those directly impacted by the drug war. A 2023 report from the California Reparations Task Force revealed that nearly 2 million Black Californians should receive $115,260 (in 2020 dollars), or $2,352 for each year of residency in the state, from 1971 to 2020. These figures highlight the necessity of addressing the physical, emotional and economic damage caused by racist drug war policing, yet this public compensation remains unpaid.

If President Biden wants to truly celebrate the spirit of Juneteenth, he needs to take bolder action instead of well-intended half-measures that don’t come close to solving the problem. Emphatically and unequivocally calling for marijuana decriminalization by descheduling it from the CSA would be a strong step in that direction. Even better, President Biden could take the step that those who ended slavery and Jim Crow failed to take when those harmful institutions were repealed—he could call for economic reparations for those who have had their lives devastated by drug arrests.

Chelsea Higgs Wise is a social worker who has worked with individuals harmed by previous marijuana arrests and currently serves as executive director of Marijuana Justice, an organization dedicated to ensuring those most harmed by criminalization are prioritized by marijuana reform legislation.

This piece was first published by Marijuana Justice.

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