Drug policy is a race issue and also a human issue

Social justice and marijuana activist Wanda James will speak at CU’s Cannabis Symposium on 4/20.

When I was a student at the University of Colorado I sat on the steps of Libby Hall with all my white friends with a pound of weed in between us, rolling joints as CUPD (University of Colorado Boulder Police Department) walked by and told us to put the weed away,” says Wanda James, a social justice activist and owner of Denver’s Simply Pure dispensary. “My brother got 10 years for doing that in California and the only difference between me and my brother was our zip code.”

James is the first black woman to own a dispensary in Colorado and her business is her politics. Not only does she fight to create a successful cannabis company (her first medical dispensary suspended operations in 2012 when it was unable to get a bank account), but for drug policy reform.

This year, James is a keynote speaker at the 2016 Cannabis Symposium, a teach-in on an ancient medicinal plant and sensible drug policy. The event, hosted by Students for Sensible Drug Policy and the Cultural Events Board, is to be held on April 20 at the University’s Memorial Center. 

4/20 is a notorious day in CU’s history, known more for massive smoke outs and reactionary campus closures than for civil action. This year’s non-consumption event strives to turn the day into a more productive occasion that redirects the campus’s conversation away from mere consumption and toward the interlinking of drug policy and social justice.

James attests to the success of Amendment 64 in boosting local communities and economies. And when she talks to CU later this month she will argue that success shouldn’t just be measured in dollar signs or by the diminution of illicit market activity. We have to look at it from a racial standpoint, too.

“This is a race issue, but it’s also a human issue,” James says. “If you are a human being that is just paying attention even a little bit, it doesn’t take more than a minute to just say, ‘wait a minute, this isn’t right. It doesn’t seem correct that black and brown people are still being arrested and yet the white guys in the industry are making billions. It’s an issue.’”

Arrests for marijuana possession, cultivation and distribution in Colorado fell dramatically after the implementation of Amendment 64, dropping by as much as 95 percent from 2011 to 2014, according to data analyzed by the Drug Policy Alliance, a national advocacy leader for drug policy reform.

While this represents progress in the effort to decriminalize marijuana, it also masks lurking problems. Racial bias persists in marijuana arrests, with blacks twice as likely to be cited for marijuana, despite equal consumption rates. Within the industry, bias persists, too.

When any industry becomes regulated, barriers to entry inevitably sprout. Any new business owner requires capital for start up expenses, documentation of cash and product flow, and legal filing with the state’s Department of Revenue.

James says that Colorado officials have gone above and beyond, in a bad way. For people who have prior, drug-related felony convictions, including marijuana offenses, state law denies them employment opportunities within the marijuana industry for up to 10 years. The code also makes room for more discretionary decisions, leaving it up to the Licensing Authority to withhold a license based on other types of convictions or moral character and standing.

“Even if you had the money to be able to be a part of the industry and get your licenses, there is a really good chance that because of prior arrests and the different kinds of barriers that are set up, you would not be able to be an owner in this industry,” James says. “So that knocks out a large amount of people of color in the first place.”

The Licensing Authority can use its discretion the other way, too, and grant a license to a person if his or her felony conviction would not be a felony if the person were convicted of the offense on the date he or she applied. This wiggle room in the law creates opportunity for it to be unfairly applied and is often at the root of instances of institutional racism.

“These are very easy fixes,” James says. “Drop the requirements against felons from entering the industry. Done. It doesn’t even require a vote or anything else. Just drop it.”

James recalls a time when she was a student at CU, when she was angry about “some injustice or other” and explained to her African American Studies professor that “the system is broken.”

“He told me the system is never broken,” James says. “‘You have to ask yourself who applied the system and who does the system work for?’ When you start asking yourself who the system works for, you realize that it’s not broken at all.”

James’s anger not only drives her, but is the bedrock of an intense and inspiring optimism. This early in legalization in Colorado, she doesn’t think it is too late to adjust the system toward the benefit of the many and to offer reparations to those unfairly damaged by drug laws.