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COLUMN: States with legalized marijuana should release prisoners sentenced prior to legalization

States profiting off marijuana sales should release those currently incarcerated for marijuana charges. Since the legalization of marijuana, states such as Colorado have been profiting heavily from sales, with Colorado collecting $500 million in taxes from marijuana

One report from Harvard University economics professor Jeffrey Miron shows that states aren't the only entity with the potential to benefit from marijuana legalization. By his estimate,  even if the sale of marijuana wasn't taxed, legalization would save the federal government $2.4 billion per year in enforcement expenditures alone, with state and local governments reaping an additional $5.3 billion of savings. And the moral arguments for legalization are even more important than the economic ones. 

While marijuana is now legal in some states, there are still people in jail for possession of a substance. Like the majority of the criminal justice system, keeping people in jail on charges for sale and possession of marijuana disproportionately affects people of color. When white people are praised for being innovative for their marijuana-yoga classes or their vape prototypes, people of color are still being arrested for marijuana-related incidents. 

A yoga studio in San Francisco recently started up “Ganja-Yoga” classes open to the public. Classes like these are gaining attention from the media and therefore the public, mostly on social media websites like Facebook and Twitter. Buzzfeed recently conducted a review of said Ganja-Yoga class as if it were a Michelin star restaurant. These reviews and minute-long interviews draw hundreds of retweets and shares. 

It's important to realize that though weed culture is becoming mainstream, there are people in jail missing out on life for potentially doing the exact same thing. When a suburban mother wants to get high with her friends and do yoga, weed is a green light. Yet when black Americans sit behind bars for the same thing, the picture becomes grim. 

On Twitter this week, Josh Billinson, editor of the Independent Journal Review's The Response,  replied to a tweet about fitness and marijuana saying “I have a rule where I don’t read things about hip white people smoking weed and doing yoga in Vogue while hundreds of thousands of Black Americans sit behind bars for nonviolent crimes involving weed.”

He hit the nail on the head. Before marijuana was legalized, people of color were being arrested for nonviolent marijuana incidents at a disproportionate rate compared to their white counterparts. This affected teens as well. Last year the Colorado Public Department of Safety released a report showing that from 2012 to 2014 the arrest of white teens in possession decreased by 8 percent — there were 2,016 whites arrested in 2014, down from 2,198 in 2012. 

However, in that same period of time, the arrests of black and Latino teens in possession of marijuana increased by 58 percent.  This is reflected in 1,006 Latinos arrested in 2014, up from 775 in 2012 and 324 blacks arrested in 2014, up from 205 in 2012.   

Although it seems that the racism involved could not be more blatant, there is more. While black Americans continue to be arrested, white Americans are becoming wealthier off of the same premise. In 2016 an article about Rhett Jordan, Josh Ginsburg, and Peter Knobel labeled these men as some of the “biggest cannabis entrepreneurs” in Colorado’s marijuana industry.

Rhett Jordan was quoted in a Denver Post article saying “no one believed in cannabis back then.”  The article describes Jordan and his partner Ginsburg as “two misfit 30-something Colorado kids.” 

These misfit millionaires are gaining attention from the finance world at an alarming rate. Yet when black teens are arrested for marijuana possession, they are described as thugs engaging in criminal activity. It is completely unfair to let people profit off marijuana sales when there are still people in jail for the same thing. It is even more unfair that it affects minorities the most. 

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