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Authors Discuss Implications of Cannabis Legalization at Harvard Institute of Politics Forum

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah and Tahira Rehmatullah, who wrote the book "Waiting to Inhale: Cannabis Legalization and the Fight for Racial Justice," discussed cannabis legalization at a Harvard Institute of Politics forum Wednesday.
Akwasi Owusu-Bempah and Tahira Rehmatullah, who wrote the book "Waiting to Inhale: Cannabis Legalization and the Fight for Racial Justice," discussed cannabis legalization at a Harvard Institute of Politics forum Wednesday. By Elias J. Schisgall
By Tosin O. Akinsiku and Camilla J. Martinez, Contributing Writers

Authors Akwasi Owusu-Bempah and Tahira Rehmatullah discussed the racial implications of developing cannabis legislation at a Harvard Institute of Politics forum Wednesday evening.

The Institute of Politics JFK Jr. Forum conversation was moderated by Harvard Kennedy School professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the Institutional Antiracism and Accountability Project at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation.

The event, hosted by the IOP and the Institutional Antiracism and Accountability Project, was part of their joint “Looking Back, Paying it Forward” speaker series.

Muhammad called the co-authors an “unlikely pair,” with Owusu-Bempah as a former “wannabe cop” who became a criminal justice professor and Rehmatullah as an entrepreneur and “self-described drug dealer.”

The pair combined their disparate experiences to write “Waiting to Inhale: Cannabis Legalization and the Fight for Racial Justice,” a book published this year that details their combined knowledge of how drug law enforcement has enabled the expansion of the criminal justice system.

During the talk, Rehmatullah discussed the historical background and development of stigma around drugs.

“It was a way to control communities, target communities with something that is highly utilized,” Rehmatullah said.

Owusu-Bempah and Rehmatullah compared the documented effects of alcohol versus cannabis. Citing pharmacological research, Rehmatullah stressed the lack of an addictive element in cannabis in comparison to other substances.

“There are studies that have shown that things like coffee and sugar are actually more addictive than cannabis. There still is not a case of anyone overdosing on cannabis,” she said.

The authors also discussed a proposed social equity plan surrounding the legalization of cannabis and other drugs.

Owusu-Bempah and Rehmatullah gave anecdotes of individuals convicted for cannabis sales as well as those who had harnessed their resources to “work with other entrepreneurs to bring them into the industry and help create generational wealth for the communities” in the scope of cannabis distribution.

In an interview prior to the forum, Rehmatullah said cannabis legalization is a “stepping stone” for other drugs like psychedelics.

“There’s a lot of stigma around usage of those substances, even though historically they have been utilized in a wide range similar to cannabis, and the legalization of them not only allows for safe usage, but also federal research,” she said.

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BooksRaceIOPHarvard Kennedy School