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What if taxes from cannabis sales were used as reparations for the War on Drugs in Grand Rapids?

April 3, 2022

“After 40 years of impoverished black men getting prison time for selling weed, white men are planning to get rich doing the same things. So that’s why I think we have to start talking about reparations for the war on drugs. How do we repair the harms caused? You can’t just destroy a people and say, ‘It’s over, we’re stopping now.’”

The above comment is from Michelle Alexander, author of the book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Alexander made this comment years ago, before many states, like Michigan, legalized the sale of cannabis. Her observations, in my opinion, are spot on, both in terms of the primary beneficiaries of those who dominate the cannabis industry (White people), as well as her main point about the need to pay reparations for those most affected by the War on Drugs.

On Saturday, MLive posted an article entitled, ‘It’s huge:’ One Kent County government’s cut from marijuana tax about 9% of general fund.

The MLive article provides some concrete numbers in terms of tax dollars that several local government entities have made because they have allowed cannabis businesses to set up shop in their communities. The MLive article goes on to say:

With Grand Rapids’ first recreational dispensary having opened October 2020, this is the first year the city saw a share of the funds.

The city will receive about $677,000 for the 12 marijuana retailers in operation during the collection period, according to the state treasury.

“This is good news and exceeds expectations that were incorporated into our current fiscal plan,” city spokesperson Steve Guitar said.

Guitar said the city can’t share any of the potential uses of the marijuana dollars at this time, as City Manager Mark Washington is still working them into the upcoming 2022-2023 preliminary budget plan.

That plan will be introduced April 26 to the city commission.

The fact that local governments are now seeing an economic windfall from the taxation of cannabis sales was predicted, since there have been several years of examples from other states and communities doing the same thing. While there is no clear information from the MLive article about what the City of Grand Rapids will do with the tax money from cannabis sales, it seems that it will be woven into the annual budget.

The MLive article states that the City of Lowell will receive about $282,000, the City Grand Rapids will make $677,000, and Kent County will receive $1.07 million. Between just these three governmental bodies, the total amount of money the will collectively be receiving from the taxation of cannabis is $2,029,000. 

Now, if we are to take seriously Michelle Alexander’s admonition to pay reparations, which we should, the governments of Grand Rapids, Lowell and Kent County have an opportunity to financially compensate those most affected by the War on Drugs. 

For the disproportionately high number of Black and Latinx people who have gone to jail or prison on marijuana charges, the cost has been significant. Here is a list of just a few consequences of that cost:

  • The separation of families, in some cases for years. What is the cost of having a loved one separated from their children, spouses, parents and siblings? 
  • In the case of income earners who went to jail/prison, how much did that impact families which no longer could count on that income?
  • The psychological and emotional cost to the individuals imprisoned and their families.
  • The fracturing of those neighborhoods and communities, which were impacted by the War on Drugs.
  • The missed opportunities for education, employment and other contributions to their communities, because they were incarcerated during the War on Drugs.

You cannot put a price tag on the cost of the War on Drugs for Black and Latinx individuals, families and communities. However, since we live in a society that is driven by the profit motive, why not begin undoing some of the historical harm done from the War on Drugs, and give that money to the individuals, families and communities most impacted.

From the the three governmental entities cited above, we are talking about a little more than $2 million for one year of taxing the sale of cannabis. $2 million dollars wouldn’t go very far, but what if that kind of money were to be used for reparations for the War on Drugs in perpetuity? 

Grand Rapids and Kent County always like to talk about equity. Well, here is an opportunity to not only practice equity, by providing concrete forms of reparations to Black and Latinx communities who have been impacted by the War on Drugs. Exactly how this would work, I can’t say. However, Alexander said we need to “start talking about reparations for the war on drugs.” What if there were meetings held in those communities most impacted from the War on Drugs, with the full knowledge that there will be annual funds coming from the sale of cannabis. Let those communities decide what to do with that money. It doesn’t begin to undo the harm from the War on Drugs, but it would be a good start. 

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