In this article I explore how the legalization of marijuana in North America involves the racialized class appropriation of diverse material, social and cultural capitals borne of black-market marijuana production and distribution. This process is facilitated by a conceptual dichotomy that grants the public either a U.S.-driven “war on drugs” or a state-organized corporate marijuana sector that favors highly capitalized interests, omitting the option of simple decriminalization. I study how this false dichotomy is normalized by politicians, entrepreneurs, and lay consumers by way of two interrelated strategies: The traditional vendor is constructed as “violent” whereas the legal one is “safe,” and the legalized marijuana product of “safe” corporate oligarchs is also made “safe” by its discursive and institutional association with medicine, purity, and “healing,” whereas the product of traditional suppliers remains “polluted” and “dangerous.” In the final analysis, we remember that health itself is a political, class-making device, brought to inaugurate class rights, responsibilities, and the respectability of some at the expense of others. Synthesizing ethnographic analysis, historical inquiry, political economic theories of capitalist appropriation, social science literatures on public health, and medical anthropology, this article suggests that persons enthusiastic for legalization confuse consumer desire with a commitment to social justice when they suggest that state-controlled legalized marijuana, in the context of neoliberal capitalism, represents an anti-imperialist social good. Social scientists are invited to remain vigilant about their potential complicity in the racialized class-making politics of public health in its intersection with shifting marijuana laws.
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Vol. 38 • No. 4