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Remembering the Gap Between Legislation and Change on Juneteenth

Remembering the Gap Between Legislation and Change on Juneteenth
June 16, 2023
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On June 19, 1865, a Union Army contingent under Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas with important news: The United States had officially abolished slavery. In fact, slavery had been abolished in Confederate states over two years prior. 

On the far fringes of a growing empire, Texan slave owners had withheld President Abraham Lincoln’s announcement from thousands of enslaved people who had no idea they were legally free. With the arrival of Granger’s men to enforce the law, however, slave owners had no choice but to abide.

Many Americans outside the Black community have been introduced to the history of Juneteenth in recent years thanks to the efforts of activists and educators, as well as the 2021 establishment of Juneteenth as a federally recognized holiday. But there are certain nuances to the deeper Juneteenth story that may have additional resonance for those in the cannabis industry.

It’s a terrible truth that even after enslaved people in Texas were informed of their emancipation, slavery continued in the Union border states of Delaware, Kentucky and elsewhere. It wasn’t until Congress ratified the 13th Amendment several months after Juneteenth that slavery was technically abolished throughout the entirety of the newly reunified country. 

The slow march of freedom across the United States is an important reminder that it takes more than policy changes to advance justice and equality. It also takes sustained action over time.

Often forgotten is that the Emancipation Proclamation applied only to Confederate states. Until the passage of the 13th Amendment, the fractured country’s complex patchwork of legislation left many people in legal limbo, reliant on the arrival of Union troops to enforce former slave states’ compliance with the new law of the land. 

Even after the 13th Amendment was passed, it would take another three years for the 14th Amendment to be ratified in 1868, establishing citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” including formerly enslaved people. And the 15th Amendment, which guarantees men of all races the right to vote, wasn’t passed until a full five years after the end of the Civil War.

The slow march of freedom across the United States is an important reminder that it takes more than policy changes to advance justice and equality. It also takes sustained action over time.

Parallels Between Civil Rights and the Cannabis Legalization Movement

That’s one parallel between the Civil Rights movement and the legalization movement that might look particularly familiar to members of the cannabis community. As with the abolitionist cause, every hard-won instance of cannabis decriminalization and partial or full legalization was the result of decades of work against deeply entrenched beliefs supported by reams of propaganda. The path toward systemic progress is as incremental as human beings’ own ability to change. 

There is more to this than a pat comparison. After all, the necessity of the cannabis legalization movement has deep roots in this country’s struggle to move past slavery toward integration. Cannabis had been considered a medicinal or benignly bohemian plant for centuries before the abolition movement in Europe and the United States partially contributed to an influx of Afro-Caribbean migration to the United States. 

The intersection of Black culture and cannabis was cast as a potent source of fear for mainstream white, Protestant America, with hate mongering led in part by Prohibitionists such as media mogul William Randolph Hearst and Harry Anslinger in his role as the nation’s first federal drug commissioner In the early 20th century, as Jim Crow laws spread across the southern United States, journalists covering cannabis took on a strikingly racialized tone, rebranding the plant as the dread marijuana—“assassin of youth.” 

The New Jim Crow and Cannabis

Ultimately, the criminalization of cannabis ultimately served as one of many tools to enforce the segregationist aims of the Jim Crow movement. You certainly don’t need us to tell you about the way anti-drug policy has been used as a cudgel against Black Americans, who for decades were nearly four times as likely as white Americans to be arrested on cannabis possession charges. Plenty of activists, authors, academics and journalists have delved into the role of cannabis in the mass incarceration of Black men, creating what author Michelle Alexander calls The New Jim Crow.

That pattern will continue as long as federal and state prohibition laws enable it. Even when decriminalization or legalization legislation is passed, however, it’s important for all of us to make a concerted effort each day to carry those new laws forward. 

Anti-cannabis stigma still exists despite years of concerted effort by activists, and despite the fact that over half of all states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized or legalized cannabis. Even when the federal government eventually ends prohibition, it will take years for that paradigm shift to percolate through our collective consciousness and culture. 

Remember, it took five years from the Emancipation Proclamation for Black men to win suffrage. It was 100 years after Juneteenth that the Civil Rights Act put a legal end to segregation. And 60 years after that, the legal and cultural battle over the legacy of slavery and systemic racism continues. Conservative politicians, for example, are passing laws banning DEI initiatives (diversity, equity and inclusion) that initially sprang up to ease the friction of integration after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. 

There are many important lessons we can glean from Juneteenth. One is how easily the most vulnerable among us can fall into the cracks between past and future, between beliefs, and between laws and their enforcement. It’s up to all of us to close those gaps, and to continue agitating for change.