Cannabis Legalization and Racial Justice: The Impact to Prisoners

Time to read 5 min

How Many States in the US Have Legalized Cannabis?

As of March 2023, cannabis is legal for both medicinal and recreational use in 21 states and Washington D.C., with several more states considering legislation to legalize in the near future. However, cannabis remains illegal at the federal level, classified as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. This creates a complicated legal situation, with state and federal laws often at odds with one another —to either follow suit or remain opposed to the legal use of the plant.

YET, people are still in jail in these states because of possession.

Do Americans Support Cannabis Legalization?

According to a Pew Research Study taken in April 2021, two-thirds of Americans (91% of Democrats and 48% of Republicans) support legalizing weed. Most will agree that the chill vibes that come with smoking Cannabis can make for an even better trip to the beach or even just a better Netflix and chill. 

Regardless of Mary Jane’s innocent pleasure principle, those in favor of it are simply not enough to sway the entire country to legalize. Cannabis arrests still inflict tens of billions of dollars in economic damage on Americans annually.

FBI data released in 2018 shows an increase in marijuana arrests even after legalization. Even though it was small (+6k), it is surprising. Forbes reported that an average of one marijuana bust happens roughly every 48 seconds.

What is the Status of Current Cannabis Convictions?

One of the most significant impacts of cannabis legalization has been the decrease in cannabis-related convictions in states where the drug is legal. In many cases, individuals previously convicted of low-level cannabis offenses have had their records expunged or reduced, thanks to new laws and policies aimed at righting the wrongs of the War on Drugs. This has been particularly beneficial for communities of color, who have been disproportionately impacted by cannabis criminalization.

In addition to record expungement, many states have implemented other measures to address the harms of cannabis prohibition. For example, some states have established social equity programs aimed at promoting diversity and inclusion in the cannabis industry, and providing economic opportunities for individuals and communities most affected by the drug war.

However, while cannabis legalization has had positive impacts in states where it is legal, it has not necessarily translated into broader criminal justice reform across the country. Individuals convicted of cannabis offenses in states where the drug is still illegal continue to face harsh penalties, including fines, probation, and even incarceration. This has created a two-tiered system of justice, where the same offense can result in vastly different outcomes depending on where it is committed.

Having an arrest for Cannabis can mark a person with a permanent criminal record. As a result, this can strip them of many crucial opportunities like employment, child custody, housing, and financial aid. So, it comes as a relief that 22 states have decriminalized Cannabis, eliminating the threat of jail time for small amounts of possession. Additionally, California (where Cannabis is legal) has moved to reduce or fully dismiss over 60k cannabis related convictions.

Racial Disparities in Cannabis Enforcement and The Impact on Black Communities

Although Cannabis is used equally amongst races in the U.S., A report from the ACLU proves that Black people have been 3.73 times more likely than white people to be arrested for the offense before legalization.

One example of the double standards is the story of Fate Vincent Winslow. Fate is a Black man who was arrested in 2008 in Louisiana for selling a twenty dollar bag of weed to an undercover cop. Winslow was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole. Fate had played middle man for the drug deal by getting the weed from a white dealer. He made a five dollar commission from the sale that cost him his life. Winslow was homeless at the time and needed the five dollars to buy food. The white weed dealer was not arrested. 

“Life for two bags of weed…people kill people and get five years” Winslow spoke of his harsh sentence.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan pointed out the bias when she stated that the war on drugs “had implicit racial bias in it.” The misdemeanor marijauna convictions impact so many lives of people of color, not only in Seattle but also across the country. Mayor Durkan knows that the problem needs to be solved and she took action by teaming with Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes in February 2018 to vacate convictions and dismiss charges for all misdemeanor marijuana possession.

In May of 2019, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed a bill into law that grants clemency to those who have a single misdemeanor marijuana conviction on their criminal record. This new law has the potential to impact nearly 60,000 individuals with small-time pot convictions in the state. 

Unfortunately, most clemency plans only help those convicted of minor pot crimes. People who were convicted of marijuana felonies before a legal marijuana market, may have been caught in the system, and now, their convictions are not considered minor. 

This has led many advocates to call for broader criminal justice reform that extends beyond cannabis legalization. Some have called for the decriminalization of all drugs, arguing that prohibition has not been effective in reducing drug use, and has instead led to a mass incarceration crisis. Others have focused on restorative justice, advocating for policies that address the harms caused by the drug war and provide support and resources to communities most affected.

What Can I do to Support Cannabis Decriminalization?

If you’re interested in knowing where elected officials stand on Cannabis legalization, the Cannabis Voter Project at provides easy access to find out more information and take action. At you can find out registration and election deadlines, what states will have marijuana legalization on the 2024 ballot, as well as register to vote.

What Can I do to Support Those in Prison For Cannabis Charges?

NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), a non-profit organization based in D.C., aims to move public opinion to achieve the legalization of non-medical marijuana in the United States. NORML “supports the removal of all criminal penalties for the private possession and responsible use of marijuana by adults, including the cultivation for personal use, and the casual nonprofit transfers of small amounts,” and “supports the development of a legally controlled market for Cannabis.” NORML supports those working to legalize marijuana, as well as those fighting prosecution under marijuana laws. 

In 2012, the company behind High Times Magazine filed a historic petition to the federal government to seek clemency for five elderly, nonviolent Cannabis-only offenders serving life without parole. The five men are John Knock, Paul Free, William Dekle, Larry Duke, and Charles Cundiff. All five elderly men have served at least 15 years in prison for their marijuana dealings. The petition argues they have been model prisoners, and do not pose a threat to themselves, others or society, and so should be released. Because these men have no chance at parole, clemency from the U.S. President is their only hope of release. The non-profit organization founded by volunteer Beth Curtis called Life For Pot helped to back this federal petition to free the five men. Life For Pot has tracked at least twenty prisoners serving life sentences for Cannabis-only related crimes. As of today, four out of the five men have been released - Larry Duke, John Knock, Paul Free, and Charles Cundiff.