Two Days in the Political Life of Marijuana

People may have thought that the legalization of marijuana in two states -- Colorado and Washington -- in the last election was a high-water mark in the political life of the drug.

They were wrong. Over the last couple of days, marijuana's impact on the political life of the United States has reached new heights.

Primary, of course, was the announcement Monday by Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. of his initiative to reduce the oversized American prison population by changing the way this Department of Justice deals with lower-level drug offenders (read: maijuana possessors and smokers).

This announcement was surprising on many grounds. It seemingly reversed an intransigent Obama administration stance (represented by the DEA and Obama drug czar Gil Kerlikowske) towards medical marijuana and marijuana legalization, as indicated by continuing raids against MM facilities and seeming administration indifference -- if not hostility -- to the legalization referendums in two states.

Now all of this is seemingly made irrelevant by the fundamental shift in administration thinking on crime and sentencing. (Sidebar: And what has proved more irrelevant -- time and again -- than the post of Drug Czar and Kerlikowske himself.)

But here's the thing -- the way the administration has chosen to bring about this shift is about as indirect as you can get. Holder ordered federal prosecutors to avoid mandatory sentencing laws for users or possessors by omitting from their charges the quantities of the drug involved that trigger these laws!

My, that is a roundabout way to approach the problem of too many people -- particularly minorities -- in prisons for simple marijuana possession and use. It involves how prosecutors apply Holders' directions (which includes interpreting defendants' prior criminal histories and whether or not -- and what it means -- for defendants to have "ties" to a gang). And, if the current sentencing imperatives are unjust, what about the tens of thousands of federal inmates already serving their mandatory drug sentences?

How about, instead, decriminalizing marijuana use?

Which brings us to the third event in this sequence of events, which occurred Tuesday in New York City (I'll return to the second shortly). A lesser-known candidate for New York City's mayorship, John Liu (the current city comptroller) announced a plan to legalize and tax marijuana.

Wow! Marijuana legalization actually out on the table in New York.

Which is important because of the second event -- a decision in New York Monday by a federal judge that the city's stop-and-frisk policy unconstitutionally discriminates against minorities.

And the remedy for that?

The judge made clear that she was not striking down the program -- which remains an important tool for law enforcement -- but requiring the city to use that tool in a way that does not discriminate against African-Americans and Hispanics and that comports with constitutional guarantees against unreasonable search and seizure. Given the city's refusal to alter its practices significantly, Judge Scheindlin had little choice but to appoint an outside monitor to oversee sweeping changes in how the New York Police Department trains its officers and carries out the stop-and-frisk policy.

Does a federally enforced monitor over the very powerful New York City police force -- against the strenuous opposition of current mayor Michael Bloomberg -- seem like a long and difficult path to pursue?

And what is its purpose? Primarily to stop the arrests of low-level marijuana users, who are those mainly swept up by this police net in a way that leads to African-Americans being four times as likely to be arrested nationally for marijuana crimes as whites despite their being no more likely to use the drug than their fellow Americans, according to an ACLU study. This imbalance is even greater in NYC, according to an earlier study putting this discrepancy at 7:1 there.

New York City is now entering its 10th year of pouring tens of millions of dollars (this was 2009) into arresting people for the lowest-level misdemeanor marijuana cases.

But the SoHo bouncers and the Chelsea graphic artist don't have much to worry about, at least from the police: they are white. Even though surveys show they are part of the demographic group that makes the heaviest use of pot, white people in New York are the least likely to be arrested for it.

Last year, black New Yorkers were seven times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession and no more serious crime. Latinos were four times more likely.

In 2001, during his first campaign for mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg was asked by New York magazine if he had ever used marijuana. "You bet I did," he replied. "And I enjoyed it."

Is there any way to avoid the onerous federal monitor?

Why, yes -- legalize the drug. And these three events have suddenly made this prospect much more obvious, even though the mayor of New York (whoever that turns out to be) and attorney general (and president and Congress) have not yet realized it.