A new report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sheds some light on many of the underlying dirty truths of cannabis prohibition: money is wasted and law enforcement resources are diverted from battling serious crime on a war that disproportionately harms African Americans. While most of the data isn’t earth-shattering for experienced marijuana law reform activists, the ACLU’s study demonstrates how far we still have to go, despite so much success in recent years. It is fantastic that we now have 20 medical marijuana states (if you include our nation’s capitol as a state), 15 states that have decriminalized cannabis and two states that have legalized marijuana possession altogether. However, facts don’t lie and the ACLU’s report, “The War on Marijuana in Black and White“, illustrates many disturbing facts that are still plaguing our nation.
I have seen the discrepancies between how African Americans are treated when marijuana is found in a couple of instances. Twice, I have seen Black friends treated more harshly after law enforcement officers found marijuana. Once, at the University of Missouri-Columbia, I saw a Black friend arrested, handcuffed and marched out of our dorm for smoking a blunt. In contrast, a few of my middle-class white friends were merely written a citation and didn’t suffer the indignity of handcuffs even though they had more marijuana, possessed marijuana and were drinking underage. The white friends were also charged in city court while my Black friend was charged in county court, a distinction that can cause someone to lose financial aid and employment opportunities. The marijuana laws on the books themselves aren’t racist, but I have seen the enforcement of those laws carried out in a racist way and the facts demonstrate that my anecdotal testimonies are far too common.
The ACLU’s report is a must-read filled with alarming statistics. Between 2001 and 2010, there were over 8 million arrests for marijuana in the United States, meaning that there is a marijuana arrest every 37 seconds in this country. There’s an old punch line in the cannabis community that follows such a statistic, “You wonder why we’re so paranoid!” The War on Marijuana costs American tax payers around $3.6 billion yearly, with no proof that the money actually does any good preventing anyone from smoking marijuana. People in prison can get marijuana, another illustration of the futility of cannabis prohibition. And now the racist portion of the war: while Blacks and whites use marijuana at about the same rate, Blacks are more than 3 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.
Even my home state of Oregon, known for its relatively liberal marijuana laws, saw the rate of marijuana arrests and citations jump 45% from 2001 to 2010, the 5th largest increase in the country (my birth state of Missouri is right behind at 6th). Despite under an ounce being decriminalized and a state medical marijuana program, there were still over 12,000 arrests and citations in oregon, with over 90% of incidents for less than an ounce. While Oregon is better than most states, wouldn’t Oregonians prefer law enforcement officers preventing brutal, violent attacks, instead of wasting time hassling marijuana smokers?
Of course, other states have it much, much worse with more draconian laws and embarrassingly disproportionate arrest rates. Ohio, Tennessee, Kentucky, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Alaska all saw the racial disparity of marijuana arrests between Blacks and whites increase more than 100% from 2001 to 2010. Not surprisingly, the Deep South has alarming racial statistics as 69% of all 2010 marijuana arrests in Mississippi were of African Americans. Georgia and Louisiana are almost as bad as Mississippi with 64% of arrests in Georgia were of Blacks while down in the Bayou, African Americans made up 61% of all marijuana arrests. The racial discrepancies aren’t just in the South, however, as Blacks accounted for 58% of marijuana arrests in Illinois (while representing just 15% of the overall population), while, in our nation’s capitol, shockingly, over 90% of marijuana arrests are of African Americans.
Seeing my African American friends treated differently under the same marijuana laws is what sparked my activism. I didn’t plan on being an activist, my plan was to do well in school, get my law degree, pass the bar and make a good living in an ordinary law office. Witnessing discrimination first-hand changed those plans and I dedicated my life to ending the War on Marijuana. I learned as much as I could and certainly drove plenty of professors crazy as I looked for every opportunity to write about the need to reform our marijuana laws. I co-authored successful local marijuana law reform initiatives while in law school because I knew the educational and employment opportunities of nonviolent citizens shouldn’t be derailed for using marijuana, something that Al Gore, Newt Gingrich, George Bush and Bill Clinton all did (and now we can add the current president, Barack Obama to the list). I continue working to fight against this war because I have seen too many good people hurt and the statistics don’t lie: the War on Marijuana costs too much money and it is a war that disproportionately harms minorities and the poor.
Hopefully, this report by the ACLU will help convince more people to fight this civil rights battle of our time. It seems that we are making progress every day and yet ever day is still filled with heartbreaking stories of violent raids, lives ruined and even innocent people dying. Ending this war won’t be easy, as those in power don’t give it up easily, but end it we must. And we will.
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