Why Ending Marijuana Prohibition Is a Racial Justice Issue

The struggle to end America's disastrous war on drugs is a struggle for racial justice. How could it not be, given the extraordinary and disproportionate extent to which people of color are arrested, prosecuted and incarcerated for drug offenses?
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The struggle to end America's disastrous war on drugs is a struggle for common sense, for human rights, and of course for racial justice. How could it not be, given the extraordinary and disproportionate extent to which people of color - and especially black people - are arrested, prosecuted and incarcerated for drug offenses?

Almost everyone gets it these days. The U.S. Senate recently voted unanimously to reform the racially discriminatory federal crack/powder mandatory minimum drug laws. Last year New York finally approved a major reform of the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws that have sent hundreds of thousands of people - overwhelmingly black and Latino - to prison for absurd lengths of time. In Connecticut a few years ago, the state legislature passed - and Republican Governor Rell signed - a bill to reform the state's crack/powder laws. And this year New Jersey became the first state to reform its popular but notoriously unjust and counterproductive "drug free school zone" law.

I highlight each of these efforts because my colleagues at the Drug Policy Alliance played such a pivotal role, but similar efforts are underway across much of the country. We're increasingly successful in part because of the growing awareness among legislators, community leaders and activists - black, Latino, and white - that reforming these laws is a racial justice priority.

Of all our drug law reform efforts, however, marijuana law reform should be at or near the top of our racial justice priorities. Why? Of the 1.8 million drug arrests made last year, 750,000 were for nothing more than possession of a small amount of marijuana. That represents more than 40% of all drug arrests. The best available national evidence indicates that blacks and whites use marijuana at similar rates - but that black people are three times more likely to be arrested for possessing marijuana.

Most of those arrested aren't immediately handed a lengthy sentence. But they are handcuffed, taken to jail, put into databases of criminal offenders, and often end up spending days, weeks, months and in some cases years behind bars. These arrests produce permanent criminal records that can disqualify people for jobs, housing, schooling and student loans. Those 750,000, I should note, don't include the untold thousands of people on parole and probation for other minor offenses who land in jail because they fail a drug test for marijuana or are caught with a joint.

Clearly marijuana prohibition is unique among American criminal laws. No other law is both enforced so widely and harshly yet deemed unnecessary by such a substantial portion of the populace. Recent polls show that over 40% of Americans think that marijuana should be taxed and regulated like alcohol; it's roughly 50% among Democrats, independents, adults under age 30, and voters in a growing number of western states.

What's difficult to understand is how and why the number of people arrested annually for marijuana possession has doubled during the past twenty years - even as support for ending marijuana prohibition has also doubled during the same period of time.

The best explanation I've seen of increasing marijuana arrests is a fine report by Harry Levine and Deborah Small, "The Marijuana Arrest Crusade in New York City: Racial Bias in Police Policy 1997-2007". In New York City, where I live, 46,500 people were arrested for marijuana possession last year; 87 percent of these people were black and Latino. The NYPD arrests Latinos for marijuana possession at four times the rate of whites, and blacks at seven times the rate of whites. It's not that young black and brown men are more likely to smoke a joint in public; it's that they're much more likely than most other New Yorkers to be stopped and searched - and then arrested when the police find in their pockets what they'd also find in the pockets of hundreds of thousands of other New Yorkers, if they looked.

New York City's marijuana arrest rate qualifies it as "the marijuana arrest capital of the world" but this is very much a national problem. In California, 61,400 people were arrested for marijuana possession in 2008, a 300 percent increase since 1990. In California, black people made up less than 7 percent of the state population but 22 percent of people arrested for all marijuana offenses and 33 percent of all marijuana felony arrests in 2008. More black people are arrested in California for marijuana felonies than whites, although there are six times more whites in the state population - and huge numbers of white people involved in growing and selling marijuana.

We can change this! Californians will have a chance to vote this November on a ballot initiative that would legalize possession and cultivation of modest amounts of marijuana and allow localities to choose to tax and regulate production and distribution of larger amounts. One of the first leaders to endorse the ballot initiative was Alice Huffman, the influential head of the California NAACP. A poll in late April found 56% of Californians in favor of legalizing marijuana. Support was 59% among whites, 58% among Asian Americans and 67% among black people; only Hispanics leaned against, with 45% in favor and 53% opposed.

Change is afoot in New York City as well, although it's going to be tough. The Drug Policy Alliance and our allies are working hard to turn the NYPD's marijuana arrest policy into a political issue. Why, we want to know, did arrests for marijuana possession increase from a few thousand a year in the early 1990s to almost 50,000 today? Why are nearly 90% of those arrested black and Latino, mostly young men? Where's the evidence that this arrest policy does anything whatsoever to make the city safer? Indeed, where's the evidence that most New Yorkers even approve of such a policy? So far as I can tell, most New Yorkers would much prefer that police focus their attention on genuine threats to public safety.

Ending marijuana prohibition is a racial justice issue and an essential step in ending the war on drugs. Today, there is an emerging wave of marijuana law reform across the country. While political and community leaders from every racial and ethnic group are generally nervous about stepping out on this issue, more and more are beginning to do so. What's needed now is bold leadership and action. My colleagues and I are getting the word out, raising consciousness and beginning to organize as we have on other drug policy reform campaigns. We hope you'll join us, and encourage other individuals and groups to step out as well. The time is now.

Ethan Nadelmann is the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org)

* This article originally appeared on Change.org

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