Waiting to Inhale: Cannabis Legalization and the Fight for Racial Justice

November 18, 2022 by Shreeya Lamba

The new U.S. pardon for all federal convictions of simple cannabis possession, of which there are approximately several thousand, will do little to help the millions of Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples harmed by the War on Drugs, argues Professor Akwasi Owusu-Bempah in his forthcoming book, Waiting to Inhale: Cannabis Legalization and the Fight for Racial Justice

Dr. Owusu-Bempah is a Professor of Sociology, an affiliate scientist at Canada’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and the Director of Research for the Campaign for Cannabis Amnesty. His work examines the intersection between race, crime, and criminal justice, with an emphasis on drug legalization and the effects of drug laws on racial minorities. 

According to Owusu-Bempah, America’s War on Drugs created a target on the backs of Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples already struggling within a system designed to harm them. While perspectives on recreational drugs like cannabis have shifted in recent decades, Owusu-Bempah’s work considers how the only people benefiting from the drug legalization movement are White Americans who, unlike their racialized neighbours, are able to capitalize on the industry without police scrutiny. 

Waiting to Inhale, coauthored by Commons CEO Tahira Rehmatullah, explores the road to racial justice through the lens of drugs. The book highlights the stories and struggles of those most disproportionately hurt by the War on Drugs and those of activists and cannabis entrepreneurs fighting back against racist legal forces. Owusu-Bempah and Rehmatullah argue that with today’s decreasing stigma against cannabis, now is the best time to right the wrongs of the US government. They also point out that the government needs to enforce not just a total expungement of cannabis convictions, but also a protected place in the market for Black and Brown entrepreneurs, who still take the brunt of the punishment for harsh drug laws. 

As a charge against America’s shameful history concerning drug laws and as a message of hope for the communities destroyed in the War on Drugs, Waiting to Inhale aims to show readers exactly how racial justice can be achieved. 

The book will be published in April 2023 by MIT Press and is available now for pre-order.