David Schlussel

“The Mellow Pot-Smoker”: White Individualism in Marijuana Legalization Campaigns

Recreational marijuana is now legal in several states as a result of ballot initiative campaigns. A number of campaigns have framed marijuana legalization using what this Note calls “white individualism.” They have put forth messages and images to implicitly suggest that white, hardworking, middle-class marijuana consumers are deserving beneficiaries of legalized marijuana. This Note examines the appearance of white individualism in the Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska campaigns. It also explores the appearance of racial justice appeals in the California, Ohio, Washington, D.C., and Massachusetts campaigns.

A whitewashed framing of legal marijuana omits and implicitly reinforces marijuana prohibition’s troubled legacy. Marijuana prohibition first came about through the proliferation of racist stereotypes. Its expansion during the “war on drugs” rested on coded racial appeals, and its enforcement has disproportionately affected black and brown people. This Note explores the varying degrees to which successful and failed marijuana legalization campaigns have addressed these issues.

White individualist framing has tended to correlate with post-legalization policies that favor white marijuana entrepreneurs, such as those prohibiting people with marijuana convictions from receiving business licenses, rather than policies that redress harms from prohibition, such as the expungement of criminal records. As many people continue to experience criminalization and racial myths go relatively unchallenged, largely white marijuana entrepreneurs reap legal marijuana’s profits. Marijuana policy should address past harms, this Note argues, because marijuana prohibition was founded and implemented on an unjust basis.