By: Khalil Gordon, Opinion Editor
Last month, the state of New York signed into law a bill legalizing recreational use of marijuana for adults over the age of 21. While skeptics may note the timing of the bill to be a bit too coincidental given Governor Cuomo’s sexual misconduct scandals, the fact of the matter is that life is set to improve for a lot of people.
The criminalization of marijuana has always had its roots in racism. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the start of the Mexican Revolution in 1910 gave rise to a wave of new immigrants coming to the U.S. When they arrived, they brought their tradition of recreational marijuana with them, and as xenophobic ideologies grew among the American populace, so too did the demonization of marijuana. By 1937, after heavy campaigning by Harry J. Anslinger, head of the then newly formed Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the drug had become functionally criminalized across the United States.
To this day the use of marijuana remains largely intertwined with race. In a 2018 study conducted by the New York Times, it was found that Hispanic people were five times more likely to be convicted of a low-level marijuana charge than a non-Hispanic white person. African Americans were 15 times as likely. It was also found that use of recreational marijuana was uniform across both Black and white American communities, yet the former saw more arrests being made.
Suffice to say that the criminalization of marijuana has disproportionately affected America’s minority groups and this law is a step closer to evening the playing field. What I feel is more important than the legalization of use and possession are the expungements of previous criminal records. This will enable potentially thousands of people to reclaim agency over their lives due to being freed from the absurdly crushing limitations of the ex-convict status. It will greatly improve the quality of life for those minority groups that have been affected and eliminate an avenue for further injustices.
Several states have already begun the decriminalization process. Governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey passed similar legislation earlier this year. While each respective state has variations on what activity, if any, remains criminal, what we are seeing is a general move in the right direction across the board. New York is in a unique position. New York City is largely regarded as the economic capital of the world and is an absolute behemoth of a city, but the rest of the state is largely rural. This means that the state is a perfect test site for how new policies would work in either setting. If this legislation can work in New York, I see no reason why other states would not try to quickly follow suit.