Marijuana prohibition is withering away, but the human carnage it caused is permanent. Governments should take action to atone for their Drug War sins.

Marijuana prohibition is withering away, but the human carnage it caused is permanent. Governments should take action to atone for their Drug War sins.
Eliana Miss Illi, General Manager of Weed World poses as she smokes a joint on 7th Avenue in Midtown New York City, March 31, 2021.KENA BETANCUR/AFP via Getty Images
  • New York has legalized marijuana and will soon begin expunging low-level possession convictions. That's great, but it's not enough.
  • Marijuana prohibition cost people their homes, their careers, and their educations.
  • The War on Drugs is a war on people, and governments should do more to atone for what's been done to the Drug War's victims.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

New York has finally legalized recreational marijuana for adults, ending its part in the dumbest and arguably most destructive battlefield of the "War on Drugs."

Within a year or two, there should be a legal market to buy and sell cannabis in the Empire State, with a substantial percentage of licensing reserved for communities most devastated by the effects of prohibition.

There's even talk of opening Amsterdam-style cafes where marijuana, not alcohol, is the social lubricant of choice.

Convictions for marijuana possession will be expunged. And New Yorkers will no longer have to live in dread of a misdemeanor arrest, sometimes accompanied by a night in jail, for walking around with a bag of weed.

It's a statewide quality of life improvement. It's a cause for celebration. It's an enormous relief.


But, lest we forget, the carnage wrought by marijuana prohibition can never be undone.

Because the War on Drugs has always been a war on people.

Prohibition is a crime against humanity

"No one is in prison for possessing a small amount of marijuana," is a common and wholly untrue refrain of the prohibitionists.

Regardless of the astounding number of people who've served time for low-level pot offenses, prison time is far from the only useful metric for assessing the human damage toll.

The low income families kicked out of public housing because their teenager got busted with weed.


The kids who never got a college education because marijuana arrest in high school made them ineligible for financial aid.

All the careers in both the public and private sectors ruined because marijuana use caused a failed drug test.

The loss of livelihoods, the destruction of families, the permanent stamping of criminality on a child - collectively, makes marijuana prohibition a crime against humanity.

We'll never be able to fully quantify the scale of what's been unjustly taken from so many people.

Full legalization is inevitable, but until then the Drug War will continue to ruin lives

States - those hallowed "laboratories of democracy" - are lining up to legalize. With recreational cannabis now fully legalized in 15 states and the District of Columbia, the end of pot prohibition is all but inevitable.


More than two-thirds of Americans have moved well past the half-measure of decriminalization, and into embracing full legalization, according to a recent Gallup poll.

You'd think such a sizable majority would spur Congress into taking action on legalization - it being the "will of the people" and all - but there's still no sense of urgency. And the Democrat in the White House has thus far been no help.

Joe Biden, one of the Drug War's primary architects, still makes marijuana use a fireable offense in his own White House, and has yet to fulfill his campaign promise of moving marijuana off of the DEA's most restricted categorization of Schedule I narcotics.

And while it's great that New York and other states are expunging low-level marijuana convictions, the substance is still federally criminalized and illegal in a majority of states.

That means more arrests, more black market violence and corruption, and more ruined lives.


A little more than a year ago when former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg was briefly a frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, I suggested he take action to atone for his legacy as the "Stop and Frisk" mayor - where bogus police stops led to thousands of marijuana possession arrests, mostly affecting Black and brown residents.

Rather than spending nearly a billion dollars on a quixotic campaign, the billionaire ex-mayor could have funded scholarship programs that would give the people who suffered under both his Stop and Frisk policies and his marijuana crackdowns over 12 years in office.

Bloomberg, unsurprisingly, didn't take my suggestion. But I'll still defend the idea.

Governments will be spending far less money enforcing prohibition, and taking in far more money in marijuana revenues. They should spare a few dimes for the lives ruined by old, bad laws.

Whether it's a scholarship fund or a second chance at a public job or just a debit card with a few thousand dollars on it - some form of penance that acknowledges a wrong was done, and tries to ease the suffering caused by it, is in order.


Make it automatic. When a state expunges a conviction, some form of a "Drug War Victims Benefit" kicks in.

Drugs clearly won the war on drugs, and it wasn't particularly close.

But "drugs" didn't die, and they don't still suffer from the war, people do. Governments can never be made right, but they can and should atone.