After decades of discriminatory enforcement, rethinking marijuana laws is long overdue

The Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board (TNS).

President Joe Biden has taken the first steps to move beyond more than 50 years of failed drug policy. Earlier this month, the president directed his administration to begin the process that would remove marijuana from the list of the most dangerous illicit drugs, which includes heroin and LSD, and effectively eliminate a federal ban on using cannabis.

It is about time.

Ever since President Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970 and launched the war on drugs, Americans have suffered the consequences — especially people of color. Black people are six times more likely to be incarcerated on drug charges than their white counterparts, even though both groups use drugs at roughly the same rate.

The American Civil Liberties Union has called the drug war "the New Jim Crow," a view validated by former Nixon aide John Ehrlichman's admission that the Nixon White House "had two enemies" — activists opposed to the Vietnam War and African Americans.

In a photo dated Aug. 9, 1974, U.S. President Richard Nixon bids farewell to the White House staff. At left is his son-in-law David Eisenhower, who was married to his daughter Julie, standing behind Nixon. (Consolidated News Pictures/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

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"We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or Black," Ehrlichman said in a 1994 interview with the journalist Dan Baum. "But by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."

Ultimately, the war on drugs put millions of Americans in jail, and cost taxpayers billions of dollars to pay for policing and prevention efforts. And through it all, millions of Americans continue to use illegal drugs anyway, with marijuana by far the most popular. Banning drugs simply hasn't worked.

Other efforts to rethink drug laws, like Philadelphia's decriminalization campaign, Pennsylvania's medical marijuana program, and the legalization of recreational cannabis in New Jersey were undermined by the federal prohibition. Marijuana's place on the so-called "Schedule I" list of the most dangerous drugs compels cannabis dispensaries to do business in cash and muddles regulation efforts. It also creates hurdles for scientific studies of the drug.

While supporters of continued marijuana restrictions have pointed to the potential side effects of heavy marijuana usage, such as depression and schizophrenia, it is partially due to generations of prohibition that we know less than we could about how cannabis affects the brain.

In addition to signaling a move toward relaxing the ban on marijuana, Biden also issued pardons for those convicted of simple possession — a move that represents an end to decades of racially discriminatory treatment. Despite a longtime parity in usage, Black adults in Pennsylvania are eight times more likely than white adults to be charged with marijuana possession.

Like his moves to forgive student loans, invest in infrastructure, support Ukraine, fight inflation, and guard against climate change, Biden's concern for restorative justice in his pardons is another milestone of his term so far. But the work of balancing the scales after decades of a failed war on drugs isn't over yet.

Pennsylvania lawmakers should follow Biden's lead and pass the Street-Laughlin bill, a bipartisan cannabis legalization measure focused on equity and fairness — two qualities often in short supply during a half-century of misguided drug policy.

— The Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board (TNS).