#Breaking Black: Why Colorado's weed laws may backfire for black Americans

On New Year’s Day, the first recreational marijuana shops opened for business in Colorado.  Through a landmark ballot initiative, the state became the first and only place in the world where recreational cannabis can be grown, sold and taxed legally. Eager customers lined up along snowy, freshly cleared sidewalks; gleefully awaiting their turn to purchase neatly packaged sacks of bud.

King Tut Kush, Gypsy Girl. You name it, you can get it. That is so long as you are over 21, can front enough cash and agree to also buy the required childproof bag.  Retailers, who had both the investment capital and the stamina to undergo rigorous inspections, background checks and approval process, anticipated as many as 1,000 first-day customers.

Amendment 64 is truly groundbreaking legislation not only because it is the first of its kind to be enacted, but also because of its presumed power to become a spring board for other states to follow suit.  Pot advocates believe the move could spell the beginning of the end of a 70-year prohibition-era.  Without question, Colorado (and soon Washington State) is a critical test case for federal legalization.

By creating a highly regulated “seed to sale” market, Colorado stands to reap an estimated $70 million bonanza in tax revenue this year alone.  In addition to the standard applicable sales tax, voters approved an additional 25 percent levy on every transaction. No matter what you believe about the relative benefits or pitfalls of smoking pot, its legalization—much like alcohol—is a clear moneymaker for nearly everyone involved.

With the influx of new jobs and new revenue, Colorado governor John Hickenlooper will be singing, “Do you love me, Mary Jane?” all the way to the bank.

Still others in the Left-leaning chatter class, however, would like you to believe that Colorado—and soon other states—has eradicated the necessity of black market weed entirely.  They would have you believe, that by bringing the market “above ground” the way Colorado did, state and local law enforcement dollars can be re-prioritized to focus on crimes that have a tangibly negative impact on public safety. A bevy of well-honed opinion columns in heavy circulation also point out that even though blacks and whites use marijuana at near equal rates, African-Americans are almost four times more likely to be arrested for possession.

They will tell you, with a straight face, that the Colorado referendum effectively puts and end to inequities in criminalization based on race and class.

“By legalizing marijuana, Colorado has stopped the needless and racially biased enforcement of marijuana prohibition laws,” said Ezekiel Edwards, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Criminal Law Reform Project.


Though my now grown children will be surprised to learn that I am agnostic about smoking the “sticky-itcky”, I am deeply troubled about the potential legal outcomes for those who cannot afford to participate in the legal market.

At issue, at least for me, is the manner in which the new regulations have been enacted.  Tight regulation, short supply and the general cost of running a business—including additional security measures– caused early prices to skyrocket.  Some shops are reporting sales as high as $500 per ounce, plus 25 percent tales tax— or nearly double what one might pay at the nearest trap house or college dorm room.

At that price, one should be able to dump their stash on the coffee table and watch it magically roll and light itself.

A chart-topping friend in the music industry, who is nothing short of an expert “weedologist”, says it is indeed “top notch sh*t.” But he recalls copping an ounce for just $300 a few months ago in Colorado.

The government now owns the game and with that comes a myriad of drawbacks. Exorbitant pricing and heavy taxation effectively locked many people out of the market. And even if that is short-term, it ensures the black market will persist.   The ever savvy and nimble “trap gods”, free of the regulatory environment, the costs associated with lighting up a store, paying employees and issuing W-2s, will adjust their prices to meet the demand for cheaper weed.

That’s just the free market at work. And nobody knows the game better than the streets.

But make no mistake, that street market will remain criminalized.  “The new system is f**ked up,” said the weedologist. He agrees that, in fact, for this experiment to be successful not only will the state have to get more shops approved to improve the supply chain flow, law enforcement must clamp down on the illegal trade.  The government game cannot survive if the street peddler and his bargain basement prices are allowed to flourish. And that almost certainly means more arrests– more arrests of a largely black, brown and disproportionately poor population of street vendors.  The result may further tip the scales in favor of a privileged class already largely safe from criminalization.

MSNBC host Chris Hayes, a fervent anti-prohibition supporter, took to the airwaves with a powerful, personal account of how he almost landed in the jail for marijuana possession.“I can tell you as sure as I am sitting here before you that if I was a black kid with cornrows instead of a white kid with glasses, my a** would’ve been in a squad car faster than you can say George W. Bush,” Hayes told his All In audience.

Damn right.