Reparations for Marijuana Arrestees: Who Should Qualify?

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MIllions of people have been arrested for marijuana violations since the War on Drugs began in 1970 with the establishment of the Controlled Substances Act. Prior to that, people were charged under the Marihuana Tax Stamp Act of 1937. This has been going on for more then 80 years.

Yesterday, Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke issued a manifesto, "Legalizing Marijuana in America and Repairing the Injustices oif Our Nation's Drug Policies."

It reads, in part:

"The War on Drugs has been catastrophic for communities of color, and our policy toward marijuana has been particularly egregious. Despite similar rates of use, African-Americans are almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people. Yet, a 2017 survey of marijuana business owners in states allowing them found that only 19% identified as non-white. These statistics tell the story of marijuana laws in our country, where certain communities have been subjected to over-policing and criminalization while others are being presented lucrative business opportunities. Beto is committed to rewriting this story and rectifying the harm caused by decades of unjust marijuana policy."


Beto O' Rourke wants to "provide a monthly 'Drug War Justice Grant' to those formerly incarcerated for nonviolent marijuana offenses in state and federal prison."

It goes on to read:

"To guarantee that opportunities to profit from a regulated marijuana market are made available to communities disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs, Beto will call for a federal tax on the marijuana industry, revenue from which will be used to:

• Provide a monthly 'Drug War Justice Grant' to those formerly incarcerated for nonviolent marijuana offenses in state and federal prison for a period based on time served. The grants will be funded completely by the tax on the marijuana industry.

• Fund substance use treatment programs.

• Support re-entry services for those who have been incarcerated for possession.

• Invest in communities disproportionately impacted by marijuana arrests, including investments in housing and employment support, substance use and mental health treatment, peer and recovery support services, life skills training and victims’ services.

• Support those disproportionately impacted by marijuana arrests, including those who have been convicted of marijuana possession themselves, in participating in the marijuana businesses by providing technical assistance, industry-specific training, access to interest free/low-interest loans and access to investment financing and legal services.

• Ensure those most impacted by the War on Drugs are the ones benefiting from the economic activity related to marijuna.

Former Congressman Beto O’Rourke meets with drug-policy reform activists.

As President, Beto will tie federal funding for criminal justice systems to requirements that states or local governments:

• Waive licensing fees for producing, distributing or selling marijuana for low-income individuals who have been convicted of marijuana offenses. Licensing fees can cost up to $120,000, a figure that excludes associated business costs such as legal fees, insurance, taxes and marketing. These exorbitant fees shut out exactly those who have been unjustly penalized from America’s drug policies from benefiting from a legal marijuana economy.

• Ensure that the majority of licenses go to minority-owned businesses and those disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs, including those who have been convicted of marijuana use or possession themselves.

• Protect marijuana businesses owned by low-income individuals and people of color from predatory investors and discrimination. In Beto’s small business plan, he has outlined steps he would take to root out institutional racism in the small-business lending market and expand access to credit for small business owners, including marijuana business owners."

Fair enough.

Targeting Blacks and Hippies

When it comes to "communities disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs," however, allow me to add one that gets little attention these days despite being targeted by authorities for many years: hippies.

In 1994, John Erlichmann, who was Richard Nixon's counsel and Assistant to the President on Domestic Affairs, came clean about the Nixon White House's approach to the War on Drugs:

"The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I'm saying?" he told Smoke and Mirrors author Dan Baum. "We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."

My point exactly.

My Record of Marijuana Arrests

I'm a hippie (and was a member of the "antiwar left" in the early '70s) and have been arrested for cannabis possession three times, twice in New Jersey and once in New York.

The first arrest happened in Southern New Jersey in 1992 when I was stopped while driving home from a Grateful Dead show in Philadelphia. Were the police laying in wait for stoners heading north? I certainly looked the hippie part in my tie-dye when I was asked to step out of the car. The officer found a pipe in my jacket. It contained resin and no pot, but I was still hauled off to jail. I was released that night. Rather than admit gulit and pay the fine, I went to court where I was found guilty. My lawyer and I decided to appeal. We won the appeal in Trenton, thanks to my lawyer's brilliant strategy to challenge the legality of the officer's search. I learned how to use the system to your advantage: Have a good lawyer (thankfully, she did the case for me pro bono because she cared).

My second arrest was in Asbury Park during the Warped Tour in 1996. I had stopped to roll a joint in a bathroom on the boardwalk and got caught. This time it was more serious. I was charged with contempt of court for being late to my hearing and spent the weekend in Monmouth County Jail. That certainly was an eye-opener. Ultimately, the case was dismissed becasue the green leafy evidence had disappeared

My third arrest came in 2012 during the pogrom in New York when more than 660,000 New Yorkers were busted for pot from 1994 to 2013 under Mayors Rudolph Guiliani and Michael Bloomberg. Both had no use for marijuana users and filled the jails with us. It was during these years that stop & frisk was used to arrest numerous New Yorkers - predominantly black and Hispanic - for drugs. 

Once again it was my hippie roots that got me into trouble. A friend and I were going to a Phish show at Madsion Square Garden. We drove there and parked in the lot on 32 St. After we got out of the car we were surrounded by police who had been apparrently staking out the lot, looking to bust Phish phans. We'd smoked in the car and they smelled the aroma. The car was searched and we were frisked. Before long we were cuffed and placed in a tight paddy wagon with other longhaired offenders. We were taken to the Midtown South police station and jailed in cold cells for the next nine hours and then released. Needless to say, we missed the show.

My third arrest came in 2012 during the pogrom in New York when more than 660,000 New Yorkers were busted for pot from 1994 to 2013.

This time we had no choice but to plead guilty and pay fines (and our lawyer's fees). I attended three sessions at a police precinct where we discussed our arrests. I came with an attitude. "Why so quiet, Steve?" one officer asked me. "I shouldn't be here. Marijuana should be legal," I groused. But I was there, no matter the color of my skin. Marijuana knows no color. People of all shades use it and get arrested for it.

So in writing this, which I've been thinking about for a while, I don't question the overall point that minorities have been most harmed by the drug war and deserve some form of restitution, be it reparations or preferential treatment when it comes to the business of cannabis.

I understand that even though I was arrested three times for pot, my white privilege likely kept me out of jail (for longer than a few hours or a weekend) and made it easier for me to move on past these awful experiences. But an arrest is an arrest; once you're in the system, the authorites are not your friends and are not doing you any favors. Their goal is to humiliate you and treat you as less than human. That's how I felt. Should I receive reparations for this treatment? Perhaps. But my overall contention is that many people suffered - and still suffer - from the impact of the War on Drugs. I'm one of them.

Steve Bloom

Steve Bloom

Publisher of, former editor of High Times and Freedom Leaf and co-author of Pot Culture and Reefer Movie Madness.