On November 8th of 2016, California made history by passing Proposition 64, also known as the Adult Use of Marijuana Act. As an Asian American woman who has fought for drug policy reform over the past five years, I am optimistic that this will have a positive impact on our community. However, as the daughter of Chinese immigrant parents, I know that I should address some concerns that remain in the Asian American community.
Many who voted against marijuana legalization were afraid that this policy would increase our community’s drug use and addiction rates. However, people fail to realize that it is, and has always been, easy for young people to buy illegal drugs because drug dealers don’t check IDs. Having cannabis legally sold in regulated stores will be safer for eligible consumers and can reduce unnecessary dangers associated with the purchase of cannabis. In addition, 60% of the tax revenue raised will go to youth drug education, treatment and prevention services.
Drug use is important to talk about, not only because it is a serious issue in its own right, but also because it is often the most visible symptom of an underlying and more serious issue. According to Psychology Today, people with substance use disorders are about six times more likely to commit suicide than the general population. According to the Asian American Psychological Association, suicide is the 8th leading cause of death in the Asian American community.
The culture of silence around drug use and the culture of silence around mental illness are one and the same, and it is impossible to deny that that silence is harmful to our community. The passage of Prop. 64 signals that it is time for us to break the silence, and start having honest conversations about drug use and abuse in the Asian American community. For parents who wants to talk to your children about drug use, check out Safety First for guidance. For students who want to bring open and honest drug education to your campus and community, check out Students for Sensible Drug Policy’s Peer Education Program for more information.
In the United States, possession of a drug, especially marijuana, is one of the most common reasons that people of color are criminalized; possession of marijuana is one of the most common reasons that non-citizen people of color are deported. According to a report conducted by Binghamton University, between 1990 and 2000, the Asian and Pacific Islander prison population increased by 250 percent, accompanied by a dramatically increasing deportation rate due to drug related offenses.
The passage of Proposition 64 is considered a milestone in criminal justice reform because now, marijuana use and possession can no longer be reason to justify a detention, search, or arrest by law enforcement. Consequently, deportations for marijuana-related offenses will also decrease. According to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, decriminalizing marijuana offenses for people over 21 will help non-citizens avoid losing their lawful status and not be barred from applying for future lawful status, which would help keep immigrant families together.
On November 8, 2016, the War on Drugs was dealt a huge blow: eight states approved making legal cannabis available for medical or adult use. However, the movement to end the War on Drugs is about more than the legalization of drugs – it is about the legalization of people. Many Asian Americans have roots in countries that believe that people who use drugs should be neglected or murdered, like the Philippines or Singapore.
Drug policy reformers acknowledge that drug use is a reality with potentially serious negative consequences. However, we believe that people who use drugs deserve to live a safe and healthy life, and the opportunity to recover and heal. Proposition 64 is an important symbolic statement that affirms that people who use drugs deserve basic human rights, and that their lives matter.
While we celebrate the passage of Proposition 64, we are also reminded that there is still a long way to go. Legalization will not be able to cure the problematic drug use caused by mental illness, make up for the time that people spent in prison, nor bring back a life that has been taken and destroyed by the state. New rights come with new obligations, and Asian Americans must participate in the political process and work to protect and create a better future for our communities.