Marijuana Law Reform Is a Civil Rights Issue

To be clear, the "war on drugs" isn't waged against drug lords and violent cartels; rather, it is the latest tool for imposing Jim Crow justice on poor African-Americans.
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"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," said the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1967 when he spoke out against the Vietnam War. At the time, he was roundly criticized by friend and foe alike for speaking out on an issue considered outside the purview of civil rights' leaders. Dr. King understood better than most at the time the true cost of war -- in lives lost, in futures squandered, in dreams deferred and in misspent resources. Eventually, a majority of Americans came to agree with him about the war in Vietnam but he did not live long enough to see the shift in public opinion. His moral courage lay in speaking out in the face of disagreement, caring more about his integrity than popularity.

As leaders of the California NAACP, it is our mission to eradicate injustice and continue the fight for civil rights and social justice wherever and whenever we can. We are therefore compelled to speak out against another war, the so called "war on drugs." To be clear, this is not a war on the drug lords and violent cartels, this is a war that disproportionately affects young men and women and the latest tool for imposing Jim Crow justice on poor African-Americans.

We reject the oft-repeated but deceptive argument that there are only two choices for addressing drugs -- heavy handed law enforcement or total permissiveness. Substance abuse and addiction are American problems that affect every socioeconomic group, and meaningful public health and safety strategies are needed to address it. However, law enforcement strategies that target poor Blacks and Latinos and cause them to bear the burden and shame of arrest, prosecution and conviction for marijuana offenses must stop.

The report released this week by the Drug Policy Alliance confirmed that marijuana law enforcement in California disproportionately targets our youth. Despite consistent evidence that Black youth use marijuana at lower rates than Whites, in every one of the 25 largest counties in California, Blacks are arrested for marijuana possession at higher rates than Whites, typically at double, triple, or even quadruple the rate of Whites.

We believe whatever potential harms may be associated with using marijuana are more than outweighed by the immediate harms that derive from being caught up in the criminal justice system. Once a young person is arrested and brought under the justice system, he or she is more likely to get caught in the criminal justice system again. While most marijuana possession arrests do not result in long prison sentences, they almost all generate some entanglement in the net of the criminal justice system -- acquisition of arrest records, entry into criminal databases and the permanent stigmatization that arises from such involvement. A simple marijuana possession charge and $100 ticket starts a rap sheet that can leave an individual with a permanent record as a drug offender, which can easily be searched by employers, landlords, schools, credit agencies, licensing boards and banks.

Given the current economic crisis and high level of unemployment, particularly for Black men, do we really want to permanently handicap a person's ability to get an education, make a decent living and have a productive life because they used marijuana? Equally important -- is arresting people for possessing marijuana the best use of our scarce tax dollars? At a time when counties are laying off teachers, firefighters, child and senior care providers, can we justify wasting millions attempting to reduce demand for cannabis through law enforcement? How many more years should we wait before declaring that strategy a failure? Our recent history is filled with elected officials (including our current President), business leaders and others who have admitted using marijuana and were nonetheless able to lead productive lives. How many would have been able to do so if they were subjected to current law enforcement practices?

The California NAACP does not believe maintaining the illusion we're winning the "war on drugs" is worth sacrificing another generation of our young men and women. Enough is enough. We want change we can believe in; that's why we're supporting Prop. 19. Instead of wasting money on marijuana law enforcement, Prop. 19 will generate tax revenues we can use to improve the education and employment outcomes of our youth. Our youth want and deserve a future. Let's invest in people, not prisons. It is time to end the failed war on drugs by decriminalizing and regulating marijuana to save our communities.

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