OP-ED: Don’t Blow Smoke, Hop

After reading Hop’s recent opinion piece in the New Pittsburgh Courier, I thought it would be valuable to give an informed rebuttal to his assertions.

First, H.B. 50 would allow adults 21 or older, not children, the choice to legally purchase cannabis. Second, I was confused by his comments which suggested that my focus should be jobs, not the legalization of cannabis, when in fact, H.B. 50 aims to end the racially biased prohibition of cannabis and create good-paying, family-sustaining jobs as a result of this new industry. It is apparent to me that Hop, and others who have taken this stance against ending the prohibition of cannabis, are either woefully misinformed, or are intentionally supporting a racist and culturally subversive system that has contributed to the persistent oppression and destruction of generations of black and brown people.

Cannabis was designated as a Schedule I Narcotic in the early 1970s. Schedule I Narcotics are the most dangerous drugs that have no medical value and have a high likelihood to be abused. Also in the early 1970s, the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse was established to explore cannabis and its effects on society. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Raymond Shafer, a Republican from New Castle, was chosen by President Richard Nixon to lead the commission. In 1972, the commission released findings that stated that cannabis should not be placed on the Schedule I drug list, but rather should be treated similarly to how we treat alcohol, and that if the government wanted to reduce the use of cannabis, social measures should be utilized. Nixon, who had hoped for an indictment of cannabis, was displeased. But, why?

Perhaps Nixon aide John Ehrlichman’s quote most succinctly unveils Nixon’s motivations: “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? 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.” Guess what, Hop, it worked. Black and brown folks were massively criminalized for cannabis, petty crimes and much more.

And before that, in the early 1900s, when our Latino brothers and sisters were coming to the United States, some citizens made unsubstantiated assertions that the plant being smoked by Mexican immigrants was making that population aggressive, and if given to U.S. women, cannabis would make them more likely to be susceptible to Mexican men. We know this age-old tactic has gotten many of us killed, Hop, think Emmett Till.

So, for the sake of decriminalizing people of color and also for medical reasons, it is important to defuse the negative stereotyping of cannabis. When all the facts are considered, it is clear that cannabis should never have been made an illegal drug. Instead, we should be asking: “Why was cannabis made illegal in the first place?”, “Why does it continue to be illegal?” and “What does restorative policy for cannabis and our communities look like?” The answers to those questions are critical, and I am committed to getting to the answers. This entire discussion is one that is rooted in both economic and racial inequities. Hop, when I am pushing and fighting for the legalization of adult-use cannabis, it’s for far more than giving people the chance to smoke. Instead, this is a chance to right some of the historic wrongs the United States has heaped upon back and brown folks. It is a chance to explore medical innovation and to find some level of economic, social and criminal restorative justice. Revenue from cannabis can support social needs, affordable housing, educational program and more! House Bill 50 isn't perfect and we are learning and looking for ways to improve it so we can create opportunities for those who have been negatively impacted by racist drug policies. I urge influencers, like you, Hop, to do more homework on this issue instead of leading our community into a shallow dialogue on smoking vs. not smoking. The current system has not worked for black and brown people and there needs to be a full and thorough examination and change of policy regarding cannabis. House Bill 50 is an attempt to move the conversation forward and to find the best solution for Pennsylvania. I hope to see all concerned parties engaged so that the future scientific, social and economic benefits can be realized by those who have endured the most harm, first.

State Representative Jake Wheatley Jr.

19th Legislative District   

Note: This is a longer version of a letter to the editor that ran in the New Pittsburgh Courier.