Today Marks the 50th Anniversary of the Controlled Substances Act

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This entry has been published on September 24, 2020 and may be out of date.

Written by Abhi Dewan ‘18, U.S. Federal Policy Liaison

50 years ago today, the House of Representatives voted to list marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance, escalating the war on marijuana. Last week, the House was poised to remedy injustice for those impacted, but instead chose to postpone their scheduled vote on the MORE Act. Though the bill was widely praised as a step towards racial justice, the vote was delayed for political concerns rather than concerns about the substance of the legislation. This wasn’t the first time politics jeopardized the livelihood of thousands of marginalized Americans.

In 1937, the racist, xenophobic, and unconstitutional Marihuana Tax Act marked the beginning of the United States’ duplicitous affair with drug policy as a tool of oppression. A few decades later, the Nixon administration took office with “two enemies: the antiwar left and black people“. While the administration couldn’t crucify those people for simply existing, they could criminalize substances heavily to “disrupt those communities, arrest their leaders [and] raid their homes… Did [they] know we were lying about the drugs? Of course [they] did.”

Criminalizing marijuana was never a solution to a societal issue. It was a thinly veiled coup against communities of color. Disregarding clear guidance from scientists within their own administration, this coup weaponized marijuana over the last 50 years with disgustingly successful results. In 2015, there was one marijuana arrest every 50 seconds, and despite rates of use being on par across race, arrests were overwhelmingly targeted towards black and brown communities. While fueling the public health crisis of mass incarceration, marijuana prohibition targeted the foundation of those communities, leaving youth without guidance, businesses without support, and families without loved ones. 

More than 1,800 people a day are arrested for marijuana, with Black Americans arrested at 3.6 times the rate of the white counterparts, despite similar use rates. That means more than 77,000 people will be arrested for marijuana during the delay on the MORE Act vote. While most arrests happen at the state level, the biggest obstacle to state level marijuana reform is federal prohibition.

Communities of color have endured corrupt injustice for half a century, forcing them to watch loved ones be taken away from their families in cuffs; experiencing the deep pit of loss felt when told they will never see their loved ones live freely; looking the other way at anguish-filled outcry suppressed by systemic cruelty and violence. A half a century, today.

It’s upon that shameful milestone the United States Congress needs to reflect. We, the people, recognize the issue, reflected in poll after poll finding a majority of Americans across the political spectrum in favor of legalization. While the commitment to bring the MORE Act to a vote from House leadership brings with it a glimmer of hope, the vote of each and every congressperson will show their true commitment to safe, just, and free America for all her citizens.