by Kamry Parks, Policy Communications Associate- Public Affairs at Weedmaps
America has two Independence Days: One commemorating America’s freedom from Britain’s rule; the other commemorating the actual end of slavery in the United States.
We know all about the first one. School children across the country are taught that the Declaration of Independence was ratified by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776.
We know less about the second one.
On June 19th, 1865, two months after the Confederate Army surrendered at Appomattox, Va, Gordon Granger, a Union general, arrived in Galveston, Texas. His mission: to inform a quarter-million still-enslaved Black Americans that the Civil War was over and they were free.
With Granger’s announcement, the Emancipation Proclamation (signed by President Lincoln more than two and a half years earlier) went into effect. Following the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, slavery in the United States was abolished, and on June 19th, 1866, the newly freed Texans celebrated the first “Jubilee Day.” That holiday eventually morphed into what we now know as Juneteenth–a day to celebrate the resiliency of the Black community.
Juneteenth is often marked with the inclusion of the phrase “Until we are all free,” — inspired by the still-enslaved in Galveston, who were among the last to find out about their emancipation.
Juneteenth was elevated in the national consciousness, more recently amid the collective reckoning over police killings and persistent racial inequities. Last year, President Joe Biden made Juneteenth a federal holiday. And since then, in a remarkably short period of time, Juneteenth has become as watered down, commercialized, and trivialized as other Federal Holidays. Labor Day, Memorial Day, and Presidents Day come quickly to mind–an opportunity to sell cars, mattresses, and ice cream.
Juneteenth is not new to the Black community, and for decades has been all about reflection– for descendants of enslaved people to contemplate how far we have come and the work that is unfinished. Sadly, “until we are all free” hasn’t happened yet. Because aspects of slavery still exist: criminalizing non-violent behavior, mass incarceration, and the prison industrial complex are a few examples. Looking at these issues through the lens of cannabis brings them into sharper focus.
In 1971 President Richard Nixon initiated the so-called “war on drugs” as a way to demonize and marginalize Black Americans. In 1986 President Ronald Regan sent in reinforcements. As a result, courts ruled according to “tough on crime” laws. Possession and low-level sale of cannabis crimes were punished with mandatory high sentences–even as much as life. During the “war on drugs,” incarceration became the sole response to crime.
Between 2001 and 2010, there were more than 8 million cannabis-related arrests in our country. Not only was that one arrest every 37 seconds–but a very visible way of disproportionately decimating many Black and Brown communities by ensnaring millions of people in the criminal justice system.
Today, the United States imprisons more people than any other country. In the 1970s, the U.S. prison population was 200,000; today, it is nearly 2 million. Cannabis use is roughly equal among Blacks and whites, but Black people are almost four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession/ And while arrests don’t always lead to conviction and imprisonment, the collateral consequences remain. Mass incarceration has become just another set of chains, and no matter how “free” a person becomes, the consequences of a criminal record can follow them for the rest of their lives, restricting their access to employment, housing, education, and other benefits.
Cannabis legalization offers a unique and important opportunity to right some of the most egregious wrongs of the “war on drugs.” Legalization, coupled with retroactive relief measures such as re-sentencing and record clearance, would put an end to the arrest epidemic and remove cannabis from the criminal justice system.
This year, Juneteenth coincides with Father’s Day. While I will be spending the day with my dad, I cannot help but think about the fathers and father figures, grandfathers, brothers, and uncles still in prison for low-level/nonviolent cannabis offenses.
Ironic, isn’t it? People, primarily Black men, are still in prison for what is now legal (and what I do for a living) at some level in 38 states and Washington, DC (both medical and adult-use are legal in 19 of these states). California became the first state to legalize medical cannabis more than 25 years ago. And while I get health benefits, a 401(k), and the chance to build intergenerational wealth, other Black families are still waiting for someone in their life to come home from prison for doing the same work I do.
I hope a June 19th comes their way soon.
Kamry Parks is a Policy Communications Associate at Weedmaps, the leading technology provider to the cannabis industry.
Check out wmpolicy.com.