ACLU Study Is Black And White: The War On Marijuana Is Racially Unjust

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PHOTO: The House I Live In, a documentary bu Eugene Jarecki

In early June, the ACLU released its comprehensive look at the disparity of arrests between blacks and whites. The report highlighted the failings of prohibition by noting some of the consequences:

“The aggressive enforcement of marijuana possession laws needlessly ensnares hundreds of thousands of people into the criminal justice system and wastes billions of taxpayers’ dollars. What’s more, it is carried out with staggering racial bias. Despite being a priority for police departments nationwide, the War on Marijuana has failed to reduce marijuana use and availability and diverted resources that could be better invested in our community.”

Regardless of the increasing number of states passing decriminalization, medical marijuana, or other measures liberalizing the laws in the last ten years, there has still been an increase in the disparity of arrests, which this report shows quite literally in black and white.

The argument to end the war on marijuana, which is really a war on people, is not just simply a fiscal issue, but clearly a moral issue. We are at a precipice where we must not just talk about a moral imperative to end marijuana prohibition; we must act.

“We are at a precipice where we must not just talk about a moral imperative to end marijuana prohibition; we must act.”

What has largely been left out of the argument is the philosophical role of the law in society, and how the actual administration of drug laws affects our communities. The morality of the criminal justice system lies not only in the fair administration of due process, but also on the perception of fair and balanced justice.

The ACLU shows the disparate effect and the harms of laws prohibiting marijuana by pointing out a disturbing but consistent trend that “despite roughly equal usage rate, blacks are 3.7 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana.”

Some of the costs to our society of the emphasis on marijuana enforcement are quantifiable fiscally; others are intangible. The fiscal estimates of enforcement are over $3.6 billion per year with eight states accounting for $2 billion alone.

But how do you define the social justice costs associated with the stigmatization caused by a criminal history? How do you quantify a loss of educational opportunities, voting rights and the subversion of the victim’s civil rights? I think the ACLU’s report clearly shows not just the fiscal impact of marijuana prohibition, but the destructive nature of law enforcement when given free reign through ineffective stop-and-frisk policies in communities of color.

It is this piece that I see largely ignored, the elephant in the room. No matter law enforcement’s intent, the policy of marijuana prohibition is largely not about marijuana, but about who is using marijuana.