Big businesses, not minorities, are winners in marijuana legalization
First Voice
Big businesses, not minorities, are winners in marijuana legalization

Editor's note: Wretched City upon a Hill is a 10-part series examining the clash between America's cherished beliefs about its democracy and the jarring truth about how the system fails in practice. The ninth essay is about the drug problem in America.

"This is historic!"

As the bell rang for the New Year 2023, people swarmed the first legal dispensary for recreational marijuana in the East Village, Manhattan, near New York University. Long lines formed, and marijuana quickly sold out.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul said that "the first legal adult-use cannabis sales mark a historic milestone for New York's cannabis industry." Chris Alexander, executive director of the New York Office of Cannabis Management, showed off the first purchase of cannabis gummies, saying, "We do have a lot more work to do, a lot more stores to open."

New York Attorney General Letitia James said that the legalization of recreational marijuana is a racial and criminal justice imperative. The New York State government plans to issue half of its recreational marijuana licenses to women and minority entrepreneurs, struggling farmers, disabled veterans, and victims of drug enforcement. In other words, marijuana has become a politically correct way to show support for the Black Lives Matter and women's rights movements.

Legalizing marijuana has also been associated with philanthropy. The first legal dispensary for recreational marijuana is run by a nonprofit agency that helps those living with HIV and AIDS, as well as the homeless and people who have been imprisoned.

Does legalization mean things will turn around for the disadvantaged?

No! Legalization is a huge win for the U.S. marijuana industry, which accounts for more than 80 percent of legal marijuana sales worldwide.

Marijuana is a UN-controlled substance, and is listed as a Schedule I controlled substance under the U.S. Controlled Substances Act (CSA). According to the U.S. Constitution, federal laws take priority over state laws, so regardless of state legislation, using marijuana is technically illegal.

However, driven by profits, the U.S. marijuana industry and the user base keep expanding, and an increasing number of states are legalizing it. Currently, recreational marijuana is legal in 21 states and Washington, D.C., while medical marijuana is legal in 39 states and Washington, D.C..

A marijuana plant. /Xinhua
A marijuana plant. /Xinhua

A marijuana plant. /Xinhua

America was one of the first countries in the world to prohibit drugs. In 1909, the U.S. convened the world's first international anti-drug conference. In 1969, the Nixon administration started the "War on Drugs." In 1982, President Ronald Reagan declared illicit drugs to be a threat to U.S. national security. He carried out tough crackdowns, and expanded prisons. The number of people put in jail for using marijuana increased dramatically.

However, marijuana has been a tool of rivalry between the Democratic and Republican parties since the 1960s. The Democrats promoted the legalization of marijuana, attacking the Republicans' "war on drugs" as racial discrimination and interference with personal liberty.

In 1969, only 12 percent of Americans supported marijuana legalization, when Gallup first surveyed the question. In contrast, a 2021 poll showed that 68 percent of American adults supported it, including 84 percent of Democrats, 71 percent of independents, and less than 50 percent of Republicans.

Now, the U.S. is one of the world's largest consumers of drugs. Drug abuse is a chronic problem in American society. More than one million Americans have died from drug overdoses since 2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of annual overdose deaths hit a record high in March 2022. Between September 2021 and August 2022, more than 100,000 Americans died from drug overdoses, a 50 percent increase from 2016.

Data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) show that as of 2020, half of the American population aged 12 or older has used illicit drugs at least once, about 37.31 million have used illicit drugs in the last 30 days, and nearly 60 million have used illicit drugs or abused prescription drugs in the past year. Marijuana was the most frequently used drug, followed by fentanyl and other related synthetic opioids, and then heroin and morphine. A Gallup poll in late August 2022 showed for the first time there were more Americans using marijuana than smoking. In contrast, in 1969 only 4 percent of Americans admitted they used marijuana.

An employee puts down marijuana after letting a customer smell it outside the Magnolia cannabis lounge in Oakland, California, the United States, April 20, 2018. /Xinhua
An employee puts down marijuana after letting a customer smell it outside the Magnolia cannabis lounge in Oakland, California, the United States, April 20, 2018. /Xinhua

An employee puts down marijuana after letting a customer smell it outside the Magnolia cannabis lounge in Oakland, California, the United States, April 20, 2018. /Xinhua

Legal marijuana sales in the U.S. rose 43 percent to $25 billion in 2021, according to International Narcotics Control Board. That accounts for most of the $31 billion in sales across the world.

When Colorado and other states that were among the first to legalize recreational marijuana made a fortune during the COVID-19 pandemic, other states that suffered from deficits quickly followed suit.

Marijuana interest groups have been trying to change federal laws by following a bottom-up approach and changing state laws first. According to OpenSecrets, an independent website, based on open data from the U.S. Senate, from 2018 to 2021, U.S. marijuana firms, trade associations and others have spent $15.4 million on political lobbying, with marijuana firms spending $4.28 million in 2021.

Marijuana has been disguised as a good "in the best interests of public health and safety, criminal justice reform, social justice, and personal liberty" in the United States. The inconvenient truth is that more than 43 percent of American young people were using marijuana in 2021. Besides damaged physical and mental health, marijuana makes those young people more vulnerable to harder drugs and increased crime rates.

Legalizing marijuana is but one outcome of multiple deep-rooted problems in American society. It represents a typical American way of doing things – for every problem it cannot solve, just legalize it!

Behind the scenes, legalization is just another opportunity for big business.

(The author, Wei Nanzhi, is a research fellow at the Institute of American Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. If you want to contribute and have specific expertise, please contact us at Follow @thouse_opinions on Twitter to discover the latest commentaries in the CGTN Opinion Section.)

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