by Amanda Zhang
People from all walks of life enjoy marijuana — white people, black people, poor people, old people, republicans, liberals — in America’s 300 some years of existence, smoking pot may just be the most egalitarian past-time in the history of our great nation — unlike college education.
The current cost of college education is $31,231 at private colleges, $9,139 for state residents at public colleges, and $22,958 for out-of-state residents attending public universities . The two issues may seem largely unrelated, but for low-income students of color, possession of marijuana disproportionately harms their chances at higher education and perpetuates a system of criminalizing young people of color for the exact same crimes committed by their white peers.
Support for marijuana legalization has steadily increased. A recent Gallup report found that over 50 percent of Americans now support marijuana legalization . An independent study done by the ACLU found that marijuana arrests have also increased.
The report finds that between 2001 and 2010, there were over 8 million marijuana arrests in the United States, 88% of which were for possession. Marijuana arrests have increased between 2001 and 2010 and now account for over half (52%) of all drug arrests in the United States.
Not only are arbitrary marijuana arrests increasing, but they also have a distinct racially-charged bias. Black folks are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possessions than their white counterparts despite reporting roughly equal usage.
Numerous arguments for the legalization of marijuana — tax revenue, medical potential, ending the war on drugs, etc.– have already been made, and yet half of the US, mostly older generation voters, still oppose legalization. About one-in-five opponents of legalization (19%) say marijuana is illegal and needs to be policed; 8% say it is especially harmful to young people, while others claim that our education system would be severely harmed.
Ironically, many opponents of legalization defer to the “But think of the children…” argument, but are obviously not “thinking of” children of color. Young people of color already face significant discrimination in the education and criminal justice system, which is further compounded by arbitrary drug legislation.
Beyond the fact that keeping marijuana illegal has not prevented nor decreased use among young people, keeping pot criminalized does far more to hurt young people of color. The continued criminalization of marijuana’s impact on poor students of color is two-fold:
While education is often cited as the panacea solution to poverty, draconian drug laws such as the criminalization of marijuana bar low-income minority students from even the prospect of obtaining higher education. The college application process, which requires that applicants divulge criminal convictions, dissuades otherwise-qualified applicants from pursuing higher education. The New York Times Editorial Board finds that those with a criminal background who are forced to check yes under “criminal conviction” are subsequently less inclined to complete their application . As of now, about 68% of universities ask applicants to reveal past criminal convictions. However, the Center for Community Alternatives (CCA) found that despite a sizable minority (38%) of the responding schools not collecting or using criminal justice information, those schools did not report that their campuses are less safe as a result.
Simply put, schools that did not check for criminal convictions were just as safe as those that did. Rather than checking for dangerous crimes, forcing students to disclose criminal convictions results in far more students of color with minor convictions being pushed out of the college process. With young people of color already over-represented in the criminal justice system for committing the exact same crimes as their peers, criminal disclosure unfairly compounds the growing disparity of opportunity between white folks and people of color.
Further compounding the problem is federal aid, such as Pell Grants, which are subject to change based on drug convictions. Students convicted of marijuana possession face severe consequences ranging from one year of lost federal aid to indefinite disqualification.
Keeping marijuana criminalized creates a cycle of arrest and exclusion from institutions of higher education for low-income minority communities. University complacency further perpetuates an unjust system of racial bias that targets communities of color for minor and non-violent drug convictions.
Keeping youth in school on a road to glimmering university institutions is the ideal situation for the next generations. But, because of arbitrary and ineffective marijuana legislation, poor students, especially students of color, are left with few options to pursue the elusive path of higher education. Many are either warded off from college entirely because of criminal conviction disclosure in the application process, and many more on the supposed “right path” become disenfranchised by losing federal aid due to petty drug convictions.
Beyond the absolute arbitrariness of marijuana possession interfering with a young person’s chance at pursuing higher education, the failure of the “War on Drugs” has diverted significant funds from other government programs that enormously benefit communities of color.
The ACLU found that states spend a collective $3.6 billion per year on policing marijuana use. Jeffrey Miron, a senior lecturer at Harvard University, estimates that about $8.7 billion would be saved on law enforcement. On the other hand, beneficial programs such as Pell Grants that provide nine million low-income students with additional funds to pay for university costs are being cut.
According to the Education trust, nearly two-thirds of African American undergraduates receive Pell funding, as do 51 percent of Latino undergraduates. When marijuana is kept criminalized, we are choosing to support the criminalization and exclusion from higher education for young people of color instead of education for a generation. The school-to-prison pipeline does not end out of the goodness of liberal hearts; it ends in part by decriminalizing petty marijuana possession and investing in communities of color instead.