Ending Marijuana Prohibition Must Take a Historical Perspective

08/21/2014 04:54 am ET | Updated Oct 20, 2014

When the New York Times called for the federal government to repeal its prohibition of marijuana and let the states decide its fate -- for medicinal or recreational use, production, and sale -- it did not rely solely on issues of the here and now, such as economics, science, public safety, and current levels of racial disparities in arrests and incarceration rates (all of which are important considerations). Instead, through the publication of seven pieces, the editorial board provided a more comprehensive argument in support of their stance, connecting today's legalization movement to the past's criminalization crusade. For the New York Times, history matters -- as it should for the legalization campaign nationwide.

Underlying marijuana prohibition is a familiar philosophy: to preserve social order and white supremacy and secure profits for an influential few, it is permissible, even advisable, to construct profit-bearing institutions of social control. Historically, this philosophy has been advanced by governmental action, guided by special interests. The traditional tactics: manufacturing mass fear, criminalizing the target or demoting them to a sub-citizen status, and profiting from their subjugation.

Cannabis prohibition did all three. The Times editorial board dedicated an entire article to explaining this phenomenon. Part 3 of the series begins, "The federal law that makes possession of marijuana a crime has its origins in legislation that was passed in an atmosphere of hysteria in the 1930s and that was firmly rooted in prejudices against Mexican immigrants and African-Americans, who were associated with marijuana use at the time. This racially freighted history lives on in current federal policy, which is so driven by myth and propaganda that it is almost impervious to reason." This limited analysis refers to the refer madness hysteria and xenophobia that infiltrated President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's administration.

Additionally, business interests play a part in keeping cannabis illegal. Some pharmaceutical companies, drug-prevention nonprofits, law enforcement agencies, and the private prison industry have an economic interest in criminalization, what is known as the drug control industrial complex. It pays big to help fight the war on drugs, and marijuana prohibition is a crucial facet of that effort. The Nation has recently called these interests "The Real Reason Pot is Still Illegal."

The United States should legalize marijuana. It should also end the drug war, which would be a tremendous and beautiful accomplishment, but it would not be enough.

The war on drugs is a mechanism of social control -- not unlike African slavery, Jim Crow, alcohol Prohibition, or the systematic relegation of immigrants to an illegal status or substandard existence. Different in their nature and severity, all of these institutions were tools used to control and profit from the criminalization, regulation, and dehumanization of minority communities. Legalizing marijuana will not alone rid society of the tendency to turn fear into hatred, hatred into regulation, and regulation into profit. To address this cycle, we must put cannabis prohibition (and the drug war) in its historical context and connect the dots where appropriate.

Already we have seen that the reality of legalization does not alone ensure justice or equality. As law professor and best selling author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness Michelle Alexander points out, thousands of black men remain in jail or prison in Colorado (where licit weed has been on the market since January) while white men make money from the now legal marijuana market -- selling the drug just as the incarcerated men had done. She warns that legalization without reparation is not sufficient, drawing the parallel to what happened to black Americans post-Reconstruction. "And after a brief period of reconstruction a new caste system was imposed -- Jim Crow -- and another extraordinary movement arose and brought the old Jim Crow to its knees...Americans said, OK, we'll stop now. We'll take down the whites-only signs, we'll stop doing that," she said. "But there were not reparations for slavery, not for Jim Crow, and scarcely an acknowledgement of the harm done except for Martin Luther King Day, one day out of the year. And I feel like, here we go again."

Alexander's historical perspective is warranted because despite the size and intensity of marijuana prohibition, of the drug war in its entirety, its purpose is not unlike that of Jim Crow or other structural forms of social control and oppression. The drug war was never about drugs. Therefore, our solution to it can't be either.

We must frame the campaigns for cannabis legalization across the states as civil rights movements -- as institutional reform efforts -- so that the public might demand justice oriented outcomes from the campaigns. We must also make the public aware of the dangerous relationship between profit and criminalization so that they can identity the potential dangerous within the relationship between profit and legalization. We must make legalization about more than raising tax revenue, increasing civil liberties, and lowering arrests rates for possession (all of which are important and positive outcomes of legalization, nonetheless).

In order to undue the damage -- to the extent that that is possible -- that the criminalization of marijuana specifically and the war on drugs more broadly have caused, we must pay reparations and retroactively apply reformed drug laws. More importantly, we must undermine the philosophies that allow for the construction of institutional harm, and we must be able to identity them when they creep up again and be ready to take action against them, to arm our minds and our bodies against the next wave of social oppression -- whatever and wherever it may be and to whomever it may be applied.

This is my plea to make history matter so that it doesn't repeat itself -- again, and again, and again.

Jelani Hayes is an intern in the media department at the Drug Policy Alliance and a senior at the University of Pennsylvania.