The Most Consequential Criminal Justice Policy Shift In A Generation For Latinos Is Prop 64

Marijuana and a gavel together for many legal concepts on the drug.
Marijuana and a gavel together for many legal concepts on the drug.

Perhaps no other group has been more impacted by the U.S. war on drugs and the prohibition of marijuana than Latinos. From Colombia to El Salvador, Mexico to Los Angeles, it is impossible to ignore the legacy of death, destruction and destabilization that the drug war has had in Latin America and in U.S. Latino communities. For this reason, California's Proposition 64, which decriminalizes marijuana and reinvests in the communities most impacted by racist drug policies, is arguably one of the most significant criminal justice policy shifts in a generation for Latinos.

What began in the 1970s with President Nixon's declared war on drugs, was expanded under President Reagan at an unprecedented rate. Thanks in large part to mandatory sentencing laws and zero tolerance policies, in less than 20 years from 1980 to 1997 the number of people incarcerated for nonviolent drug offences in the U.S. increased from 50,000 to over 400,000. Tough on crime policies -- the seemingly race-silent strategy to criminalize poor, inner city Black and Latino communities -- swept a nation dealing with economic inequality, racial tensions, and the proliferation of new variations of drugs.

California was no different throughout much of the '90s and up until recently. In California alone, nearly 500,000 people were arrested for marijuana offenses from 2006 to 2015, the vast majority of which were Blacks and Latinos. Latinos and Blacks continue to be arrested and incarcerated at higher rates than their white counterparts despite similar rates of marijuana use. And while the criminalization of Latinos in California has not reached the level felt by the African American community, data shows that the disproportionate rate of marijuana arrest rates among Latinos is growing at an alarming rate.

For more than two decades, Latinos have been increasingly used as political scapegoats and targeted by hateful rhetoric focused on not only demonizing the immigrant community but on elevating false narratives that characterize Latinos as drug dealers and criminals. This deliberate and xenophobic effort to create a false narrative intermixing undocumented immigration with criminality and the drug trade has, unfortunately, succeeded. The result has been the proliferation of a mix of immigration, sentencing and drug policies that have legitimized unprecedented levels of deportations that devastated the immigrant community with millions of families torn apart, most for doing nothing more that struggling to realize the American Dream.

Latinos urgently need common sense drug policies that adequately regulate and generate revenue to reinvest in our communities. And Latinos must see themselves as champions in the movement to end the drug war once and for all. California's Proposition 64 makes important progress in turning the tide from an unjust system that preys on Latinos and Blacks to one that prioritizes our youth and communities while investing in their future. This policy alone does not solve the systemic problem, however Proposition 64 is a major step in the right direction towards dismantling the harmful and largely failed policy framework dubbed as the war on drugs.

Building off sentencing reform measures passed in 2014 in California that are already having a significant impact in the Latino community, Proposition 64 will regulate and generate desperately needed revenue to reinvest in our communities. Specifically, the tax revenue generated from this measure will go towards local governments, medical marijuana research, youth programming and targeted mental health, job placement and substance use treatment in communities "disproportionately affected by past federal and state drug policies." While tax revenues will also go towards public safety and enforcement, the implementation of this law provides an opportunity to shift racist narratives that support over-policing and enforcement to a focus on the real needs of our community: investment in youth, community health, and economic opportunity.

The law itself would not only make it legal for adults 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana, but─and here's perhaps the most important point -- the new law would also create a system for sentences to be retroactively reduced and for past marijuana convictions to be expunged. In addition, young people under 18 convicted of use or possession of marijuana would no longer face jail time, rather they would receive drug education, counseling and required community service.

For the immigrants who have been detained or face the threat of deportation because of a marijuana offense, for the young student who loses his financial aid and prospects of higher education, for those barred from housing or job opportunities, and for those who see and understand the basic unfairness and injustice of our criminal justice system -- Proposition 64 should matter to you.

For our Latin American brothers sisters, our sons, our daughters, and neighbors, we must end the failed war on drugs. Ya Es Hora. The time is now. Vote Yes on Proposition 64.