My last 4/20 “Celebration”: Reflections on New York Legalization on a Bittersweet Tuesday Evening

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach. Beach is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY. 

Reefer Madness Talk Poster
Reefer Madness screening poster. Image courtesy of the author.

Two nights ago, I was in my car, headed to Utica College for a film screening and discussion. Earlier in the day, I had presented a conference paper for this past year’s cancelled American Historical Association meeting, which has been holding virtual online sessions over the past few months. I was thinking back to when Colorado passed its state referendum legalizing adult-use cannabis in 2014. At the time, I had wondered how I would celebrate if New York ever got around to legalizing marijuana. Since it was April 20, I imagined my first “legal” celebration of the so-called high holiday. I certainly didn’t imagine spending the entire day preparing for two public talks and abstaining.

I actually chuckled to myself for a bit. But then, immediately, my thoughts shifted as my phone rang and my brother informed me that the jury in the case of Derek Chauvin had come back with three guilty verdicts. When I had left the house, the jury was still in deliberations, and, so, it caught me a little off guard. Finally, some justice. But what sort of justice? Just then I pulled into the Utica College lot and checked in with Covid screener. The awareness hit me that I was about to lead a potentially whimsical screening of Reefer Madness, the absurd 1930s exploitation film, and discuss the arrival of legal weed in New York as part of the post-film discussion. I reckoned with the fact that this ridiculous film, along with all of the other absurdities in the war on drugs—even as we chuckle—has had really significant consequences that have been building for generations.

At that moment, I became certain about something I had felt for some time: legal weed has stopped being celebratory. I’ve never had to worry about my relationship with cannabis, even though I’ve had plenty of times when it could have caused serious problems. I’ve had no fewer than FOUR police interactions either while weed was in plain sight or with marijuana actively burning in my car. Yet, I have no marijuana-related infractions or arrests on my record, and I’ve never been mistreated by police. By contrast, when defending the police’s use of deadly force in the 2014 killing of Michael Brown, far too many people (including members of my own community) justified murder, in part, by highlighting Brown’s past relationship with marijuana.

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