Mass Incarceration and Cannabis Legalization Are Intersectional-Feminist Issues

Alyssa Mastromonaco moderates a conversation featuring Dr. Chanda Macias (center) and Tahira Rehmatullah (Right) at the National Cannabis Policy Summit at The Newseum on April 20, 2018.

Alyssa Mastromonaco moderates a conversation featuring Dr. Chanda Macias (center) and Tahira Rehmatullah (Right) at the National Cannabis Policy Summit at The Newseum on April 20, 2018.

by Ruby Homan & Laila Makled

Mainstream feminism has historically been rooted in a white feminist perspective. Additionally, a majority of the narrative surrounding the War on Drugs and cannabis incarceration in the United States focuses on men. As a result of more dominant feminist narratives and discussions of men and the War on Drugs, the voices of women of color and trans women are often pushed to the sidelines. The War on Drugs provides us with a direct example of why it is imperative feminism is discussed from an intersectional lens.

Generally, women are one of the fastest growing segments of the United States prison population and are sentenced to federal prison for drug offenses at a higher rate than men. Women are also overrepresented in state prisons for drug related offenses with over 25% of those incarcerated being women versus 15% of men. Additionally,  although women in the U.S. make up 5% of the world’s total population, incarcerated women in the US make up 30% of the world’s incarcerated women.  

If we dig deeper into these numbers, we see that black women, latina women, and trans women are disproportionately targeted by drug law enforcement. Black women are almost twice as likely – and Latinas are more than 20 percent more likely – to be incarcerated than white women. Adding to the devastation for incarcerated women and their communities, roughly 60% of women in state and federal prisons are mothers of minor children, with black and latinx children being the most impacted. In many instances, women lose custody and are often incarcerated over one-hundred miles away from their children.  Additionally, one in six transgender people, including 21% of transgender women, have been incarcerated at some point in their lives. Once incarcerated, transgender people are 13 times more likely than their cisgender peers to experience sexual assault. By taking a closer look into women’s incarceration numbers, we can see there is no single experience for women who are impacted by unjust drug laws.

It is crucial that as we talk about reversing and improving our drug law policies, including legalizing cannabis, that we aren’t simply talking about women generally, but we are also discussing the numerous intersections that occur alongside being a women such as  race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, disability and gender identity. As with all issues related to social justice, there are various power dynamics at play, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

3. 9 E. Ann Carson, "Prisoners in 2014," (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2015), Table 10. The incarceration rate of black women has declined in the past decade, while the incarceration rate for white and Latina women has increased. See Marc Mauer, Sentencing Project, and United States of America, The Changing Racial Dynamics of Women's Incarceration (Sentencing Project, 2013). 
5. Bruce Western and Becky Pettit, Collateral Costs: Incarceration's Effect on Economic Mobility (Pew Charitable Trusts, 2010), 4.

Caroline Phillips