For many, a cannabis conviction can lead to disenfranchisement or loss of the right to vote. Photo credit: Sharaf Maksumov.
The age-old “stoner” stereotypes have evolved from the silly TV personalities we know, such as Slater from Dazed and Confused, or Smokey from Friday. But the majority of today’s cannabis consumers are average Americans; many of which are full-time workers and parents.
In fact, about half of Americans admit to using cannabis, according to a Gallup poll from August 2021.
So why is it then that those with cannabis convictions are currently facing disenfranchisement? How is it socially just that those caught using it — which half of Americans have done — can lose the right to vote, get a job or even obtain housing, and may go to jail for decades?
While the majority of states across the U.S. move forward with some form of legal cannabis, people are currently serving life sentences across the country for cannabis charges, The Moorhead Law Group reports. Some of these charges resulted in sentences before their state loosened cannabis laws. However, these nonviolent offenders must still serve lifelong sentences due to the laws under the federal system.
What Exactly is Disenfranchisement?
Criminal or felony disenfranchisement the denial of voting rights on the basis of a felony conviction, according to Democracy Docket.
Disenfranchisement laws vary widely between states. According to Brennan Center for Justice, 11 states permanently bar individuals with two or more felony charges from voting, unless a judge grants a pardon. These states include Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, Tennessee, Virginia and Wyoming. Fifteen states restore voting rights upon completion of sentence, including for those on prison, parole and probation. One state – Louisiana – restores voting rights for those on probation or parole who have not been in prison in the last five years. Twenty states restore voting rights automatically after prison release. But only two states do not disenfranchise people with criminal convictions at all.
Someone who loses the right to vote equally loses their voice in shaping society. Voting is a fundamental right as a citizen of the U.S. Denying someone this right makes our democracy less inclusive. It also makes it less possible for citizens to change the laws that directly affect or criminalize them.
Discrimination in Disenfranchisement
According to a study by the Last Prisoner Project, 5.2 million people are denied the right to vote due to past felony convictions. About 40,000 of these individuals are in prison for cannabis.
Unfortunately, drug laws like this are discriminatory and disproportionately target people of color, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. Black, Latinx and Native populations are disenfranchised at a much higher rate than white populations in nearly every state.
For instance, officials are four times more likely to arrest Black Americans for violating cannabis possession laws than white Americans, despite similar usage rates, reports NORML.
Consequently, nearly 80% of people in federal prisons and almost 60% of people in state prisons for drug offenses are Black or Latinx, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. These rates are not due to frequent drug use. Rather, they are due to law enforcement’s focus and discrimination against lower-income areas and communities of color.
This unfortunate reality of the drug war and law enforcement’s bias against minorities has been present for decades, according to the Drug Policy Alliance.
As Michelle Alexander writes in her book, The New Jim Crow, criminalization for drug offenses is as much a form of racial control as the Jim Crow Laws were until the 1960s.
History of Disenfranchisement
In 1870, the 15th amendment was ratified, granting anyone the right to vote regardless of race or skin color. Despite this advancement, at least 13 of America’s 38 states at the time soon passed criminal disenfranchisement laws to block Black voters, according to The Guardian. These laws were enacted through the use of poll taxes, grandfather clauses, property tests and literacy tests. Such restrictions additionally affected immigrants, the poor and the urban working class. Those who could not provide poll taxes or pass the tests could not vote, essentially contradicting the 15th amendment.
According to The Guardian, an example of just how harsh and racially unjust voting restrictions were was Mississippi’s Constitution during the late 19th century; Black Americans were prohibited from voting for convictions of petty offenses. Yet crimes, such as rape and murder, committed by whites did not recieve nearly as much restriction. The Mississippi Supreme Court’s defense in this provision was the assertion that race influences offense.
By the 1960s, thanks to the protests of Martin Luther King Jr. and other Black leaders, U.S. officials ratified the 24th amendment and eliminated poll taxes, which constitute financial restriction to voting. Then President Lyndon Johnson later signed the Voting Rights Act. This outlawed literacy tests and enfranchised Black voters.
Despite this progress, however, a new era of mass incarceration followed minorities into the 1970s. This was the national anti-drug policy that Former President Richard Nixon deemed a “serious national threat,” The Guardian reports. This was the beginning of the War on Drugs that is still present today.
Effects of the War on Drugs
The War on Drugs excessively increased penalties and incarceration for drug offenders. After Nixon launched his drug war, the population of prisons exploded. For example, as the Sentencing Project — a nonprofit research and advocacy organization — reports, prisoner populations have risen 500% in the last 40 years.
“Since […] the 1980s, the number of Americans incarcerated for drug offenses has skyrocketed from 40,900 in 1980 to 430,926 in 2019,” the project states. Drug offenders account for nearly half of the federal prison population, they add. “At the state level, the number of people in prison for drug offenses has increased nine-fold since 1980, although it has begun declining in recent years. Most are not high-level actors in the drug trade, and most have no prior criminal record for a violent offense.”
Since voting restrictions like literacy tests were lifted, the War on Drugs allowed for additional obstacles to vote. U.S. officials would primarily target and disenfranchise people of color for petty drug offenses.
The U.S. Congress then passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1987. This distributed $1.7 billion to the War on Drugs. The act also established a series of mandatory minimum prison sentences. This meant that a third felony conviction could lead to an extended or even lifelong prison sentence.
By 2016, an estimated 6.1 million people were disenfranchised due to current or previous felony charges, according to The Guardian.
A Step in the Right Direction
At least 16 democratic countries around the world allow felons to vote, even while they are in prison, according to Newsweek. Some of these countries include Canada, Ireland, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. Currently only two U.S. states, in addition to Washington DC and Puerto Rico, also allow imprisoned felons to vote.
Felons in prison only represent a minority of the total disenfranchised population. According to the Sentencing Project, 75% of disenfranchised voters live in their communities, either having finished their sentence, or under probation or parole supervision. About 2.2 million people are currently disenfranchised because of state laws that restrict the right to vote post-sentence.
However, some states are slowly enacting new measures to restore people’s voting rights. Florida, Alabama, Arizona and Tennessee have officially restored the right to vote to those who complete their sentence and additionally paid all legal fees, according to the Sentencing Project. While this is a small measure, it is a step in the right direction.
The End of the War on Drugs is Underway
In December of 2019, Kentucky Gov. Andy Behear signed an executive order that may restore voting rights to nearly 140,000 people with felony convictions, according to the American Friends Service Committee. In August 2020, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds also signed an executive order restoring voting rights to tens of thousands of people who completed their sentences.
As of December of 2020, the House of Representatives passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE Act). The MORE Act would repair the harm cannabis prohibition has caused to millions of people, primarily people of color. The Act would do this by establishing a social equity fund to reinvest in affected communities, Human Rights Watch reports.
Additionally, the report adds, “people with federal marijuana convictions can have their records for these convictions expunged, in some cases automatically, or can be resentenced.”
However, a year has passed since they began their presidency, and they have made no moves to decriminalize cannabis yet. The Biden Administration claims to be waiting on lawmakers, according to Truthout. It may take one day at a time, but federal legalization of cannabis and the end of disenfranchisement is underway.