Eight million pot arrests took place in the United States between 2001 and 2010, which works out to about one bust every 37 seconds, according to a report by the ACLU, “The War on Marijuana in Black and White.” The same report found that enforcing marijuana laws costs the U.S. about $3.6 billion a year.

Where some may see these numbers as reflective of a positive outcome for the war on drugs, others primarily see prohibition as the cause of hundreds of thousands of people being ensnared in the criminal justice system for no good reason.

Either way, the result is a backlog of cases for minor offenses and wasted police time, tax dollars, energy and resources.

… enforcing marijuana laws costs the U.S. about $3.6 billion a year.

[Video: CNN animated some of the stats in the ACLU’s report.]

Beyond the waste of police time, the current system also leads to a disproportionate number of arrests of low-income people of color, impacting those citizens’ lives for years to come.

In 2017, according to a Drug Policy Alliance report, almost 91 percent of marijuana arrests were for possession alone. This misdemeanor offense means the offender will now face such lifelong debilitating barriers to success as no student loans, difficulty obtaining housing, insurance or bank loans and suspension of his or her driver’s license. Along with stunting growth (personally and economically), these actions saddle the accused with the undeserved stigma of being a lazy, unprofessional, addicted stoner.

What is the story you tell yourself?

Do you hear “eight million busts” and feel good, or do you hear “eight million busts” and hear propaganda surrounding an unwinnable war?

Do you believe those arrested deserved it and this will help make communities safer, or do you recognize false narratives from government officials about war on a drug? A war that is psychologically, physically, financially and spiritually damaging generations of people and their communities when they could otherwise be actively contributing to society instead of spending time in jails and crowding courtrooms.

[Video description via Big Think on YouTube: “Author Johann Hari makes a great case for the legalization of marijuana. Not only would it create a new stream of tax revenue, but it would substantially lower the crime rate and practically kill the black market overnight. One has to ask, especially after watching this video: for a drug with zero fatalities, why is marijuana illegal in the first place?” ]

The story of waging a war on drugs while ignoring its consequences to society is an old one, started by Pres. Nixon and the CIA; moved forward by Pres. Reagan and his support of harsh mandatory sentencing for non-violent drug offenses; onward to Pres. Clinton’s militarization of the police; and more recently to Pres. Trump’s celebration of brutal treatment for drug users and dealers. Most notably, when Trump invited Philippines Pres. Rodrigo Deterge to the White House, he took time to publicly “congratulate” Deterge for sending police death squads into the streets to kill drug dealers and addicts. “Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing,” Trump told his gun-slinging visitor.

The public, officially sanctioned story of a war on drugs actually helps fuel the aggressive targeting and stigmatizing of people of color under the guise of doing good for the greater community.

Why then does the old story continue? Because we all create our own stories about what we want to hear in order to make our lives seem better and more sensible. Every moment of every day we connect dots that are not present so as to construct stories that will fit our experience of what we know to be real.

In this way, our mind not only defines our world but also confines our thinking.

The problem is not that our mind creates a certain reality, that’s what the mind does; the problem arises when we believe our reality is the definitive truth.

When we can see no other way but our way, we are trapped by the confinement of our reality and stuck in the comfort of mediocrity. Thus the stigma that arises is an outcome of the story we tell. 

Similarly, the problems and barriers we hear about are understood through our own cultural lens. So when we hear about those eight million arrests, we either see people that we believe deserve to be punished or we feel for people that are continually punished.

Mike Watson’s Essay, “The Stories We Tell,” continues below.

Listen: Amy Pharr, “the brownie nurse,” talks about life after her 2017 arrest on episode eight of the Carolina Cannabis News podcast.

Perspective Matters

If we create another frame of reference or adopt another point of view, problems can be solved and new opportunities can appear. Why? Because it’s all a story we tell ourselves. And every story is constructed by connecting unseen dots using perceived information based on past personal experiences.

Remaining aware of our own story allows us to choose another way of seeing the world, or another person, and can shift how we hear the story being told.

We experience our world through stories already told, and we navigate our world following maps already drawn.

I am simply reminding you that our memories create our reality, and that 90% of everything we say we’ve already said before, and most likely within the past week. So when we decide to listen instead of speak, and consider instead of assume, we can construct new realities and remain open to new possibilities.

We can move from hearing a story that makes us feel good to listening for a story that can do good.

We can move from hearing a story that makes us feel good to listening for a story that can do good.

[Via YouTube: “How can I help the poor if I am one of them? So I got rich and gave back and that’s the win win.” Larry Smith is a setting an example for Black entrepreneurs. He became a successful business man then gave his own money to help heal the community.]

The stigma associated with marijuana and those that use it is a life story you chose to create either intentionally or through passive acceptance.

Stigmas, like stories, will continue to be willingly embraced until we commit to hearing and creating stories that state why they are important, what they mean to you, whom you will become and what you will accomplish next — and not about who to hate or to wage war on.

Push through cognitive dissonance

At the end of the day what we know to be true and what we believe to be real are often in conflict with each other.

An extensive research study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recognized both positive and negative aspects of marijuana use.  On the negative side, marijuana can potentially pose a risk to people susceptible to mental health disorders, pregnant women, those vulnerable to respiratory problems and those who smoke and drive a car. On the positive side, marijuana use can be therapeutic when used as a treatment for a variety of symptoms associated with chronic pain, chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting and multiple sclerosis among other ailments.

Life is complex and can be chaotic and we add no value to the lives of others when we refuse to hear their whole story or when we rush to affix labels on groups of people based on a single action.

We mustn’t be so willing to take a side, but instead take to holding in our mind two seemingly opposing ideas so as to comprehend instead of convict, and listen for stories that move us forward instead of hearing the story that feeds our bias.

In this way we can learn to erase the stories we tell, the stigmas we assign and remember that life doesn’t happen to us, it happens through us.

… life doesn’t happen to us, it happens through us.

Mike Watson

Mike Watson

Social Justice Contributor

Mike Watson has been educating, inspiring, creating and directing for the past 25 years. At the core of his heart-centric philosophy is this purposeful process: the heart speaks, the mind listens and the spirit acts. Mike works with those inclined toward worthy goals, guided by core human values, and in relationship with all stakeholders. He believes in the power of diversity, working collaboratively and the development of insight as a tool for creativity and prosperity.