Crowds lined up throughout Colorado as marijuana dispensaries opened up this week after the state legalized recreational Marijuana use. Other than Colorado to be the first state to make Marijuana a capitalist venture, dozens of others have either legalized the medical use of marijuana or decriminalized it. I don’t want to discuss the science of marijuana to justify it, and I’m also not here advocating for its use–we can have that discussion another time. In my experience, that sort of discourse usually just ends with people either explaining how great it is to be high, or justifying their copious amounts of pot consumption, with little room left to be grounded in actually facts and numbers, –or even sounding remotely educated–and that’s not what this blog is about. What I do want to do, however, is discuss how the legalization of marijuana and ending the war on drugs are two different agendas.
Since last year, when the use of marijuana was put on the ballot in the 2012 elections in many states, the majority of people who were asked advocated for the legalization of weed. It was the mark of the beginning of the end to an almost 40 year war.
But legalizing marijuana isn’t enough, however. we need to see how law and policy impact the drug discourse. In August, Attorney General Eric Holder discussed the reexamination of the drug laws that place African American men on the margins of society through an inconsistent set of laws that have been herding black men into the penal system at rates so much higher than any other group.
Then, in December, President Obama pardoned 8 nonviolent drug offenders. And this month, New York Governor Andrew Coumo discussed legalizing the medical use of Marijuana. But still, we aren’t moving fast enough, or in the best direction.
Even with Michelle Alexander’s best-selling book, “The New Jim Crow,” and the documentary “The House I Live In,” where the racial implications behind such a war is clear, the masses remain uneducated as to what we are fighting against when we attempt to eradicate the war on drugs: racism.
No other community has been as negatively impacted by the war on drugs than black and latino communities. With 18:1 harsher sentencing for crack cocaine as opposed to powder, with mandatory minimum sentencing, and harsher sentences for selling and not using, African Americans have been institutionally placed at the margins of society through a manipulation of law that puts them in prisons at rates disproportionately higher than whites. Today, 1 in 106 white males are incarcerated compared to 1 in 15 of black. Black people make up 13% of the population, and despite whites being more likely to use drugs, black men are 10 times as likely to be arrested on drug charges. When you look at those numbers, it becomes clear that the drug laws that exist aren’t an actual reflection of reason or concern over public health. Rather, these laws represent inconsistent reasoning, never in the favor of black males.
When someone is incarcerated, they give up their right to vote, to gainful employment, to receiving loans to purchase a home, food stamps, and from receiving welfare. What does this mean? It means that when a person is incarcerated, it becomes legal to disenfranchise them, to discriminate, and then herd them into specific geographical spaces–these are all characteristics of slavery, jim crow, and another form of apartheid.
Right now, at least for myself, the drug war seems to be more confusing than ever. You look at Colorado, where they are legalizing the distribution of pot, and then you juxtapose to New York, where it has the largest number of people incarcerated for non-violent marijuana offenses, along with some of the strictest punishments for drug possession, its hard not to be a little confused. The nation is going in two separate directions when it comes to dealing with drugs, neither which really speak to the core: racism.
It’s one thing to legalize marijuana, but to ignore the racial disparities that exist because of such a war on drugs is not just contradictory, but lunatic. Legalizing marijuana alone is a capitalist venture expected to make a few lucky individuals into billionaires, but it doesn’t speak to the core of people who are already serving time in prison for offenses where, had they been in another state, would have completely different outcomes somewhere else. The current discourse completely ignores a war on drugs that created laws that, if continued, will incarcerate 1 in 3 African Americans within the next 20 years.
Legalizing pot, pardoning 8 non-violent offenders, or even creating better–and more realistic–drug laws won’t fix the damage that has already been done, or even scratch the service of restoring justice to communities that have been destroyed from such a war. The fact that states like Colorado are legalizing marijuana and profiting over its use isn’t a victory. Its rather a failure because at the same time that so many people have given their lives to the penal system for a few dollars, “banksters” on Wall Street are laughing to the bank for the very same reasons.