Pushing Back Against Pushing Back Against Marijuana

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On the first day of the Fourth World Forum Against Drugs in Stockholm this month, Kevin Sabet from Project SAM posted a slide that listed things that “we must push back against” when discussing marijuana legalization. Of the five bullet points, the third one stated “Marijuana Legalization = Social Justice.”

What Sabet is asking is for us to ignore the many collateral consequences that surround the enforcement of our drug laws in America. These can include the denial of basic social services such as housing and welfare, the loss of federal student aid for higher education, and the loss of job opportunities based on a drug conviction. But for me, one of the most troubling aspects of the drug war is the effect of marijuana enforcement on civil liberties as evidenced by media reports.

So I ask, who should we believe – Sabet or our own eyes?

The  incident last month in Long Island, New York is a stark reminder of why Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of law enforcement officials who want to end the war on drugs, has long believed that ending the drug war will not only reduce death, disease, and addiction, but also will help support American civil liberties while helping to reduce police corruption and brutality. The victim of the encounter in Long Island was beaten by police in a search for marijuana and other drugs. Ultimately, no drugs were found, all charges were dropped and the presiding judge sealed the victim’s criminal record of this incident.

But this beating is no isolated incident of how the drug war undermines American civil liberties. I have written extensively on the many unconstitutional body cavity searches based on the odor of marijuana or the search for other drugs, yet Sabet would argue that the beatings and corruption will continue even if marijuana was legalized.

Though legalizing marijuana won’t end police corruption entirely, it would remove an excuse for law enforcement to engage in policing practices that includes racial profiling where people of color are more likely to be stopped, frisked, arrested and convicted for drug offenses despite comparative drug prevalence use rates.

Each year close to 750,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana sales and possession. 88% of those arrests are for possession only. Legalizing marijuana would reduce the number of potential law enforcement contacts between police and citizens that directly impacts those who are most at risk in American society.

One glaring example of marijuana enforcement run amok is the New York Police Department (NYPD) “stop and frisk” program. In 2011 NYPD stop and frisk policies revealed the racial disparities in enforcement that include wide spread violations of the fourth amendment. According to a 2012 New York Civil Liberties Union report,

“Young black and Latino men were the targets of a hugely disproportionate number of stops. Though they account for only 4.7 percent of the city’s population, black and Latino males between the ages of 14 and 24 accounted for 40.6 percent of stops in 2012. The number of stops of young black men neared the entire city population of young black men (133,119 as compared to 158,406). More than 90 percent of young black and Latino men stopped were innocent.”

Sabet further theorizes that legalizing marijuana will exacerbate, not reduce, racial disparities in the criminal justice system. I would argue differently as research has linked the unequal effect of the enforcement of marijuana laws on minority communities even when the law itself has been decriminalized.

Incarceration memeLet’s start with the latest academic news. In a study released on May 19th by The Illinois Drug Policy Consortium at Roosevelt University, researchers found that despite recent changes in the law, “in Chicago, low-level marijuana possession has essentially been decriminalized in predominantly white and affluent parts of the city, but in African-American areas police routinely stop, search, and arrest citizens for carrying small amounts of weed—even though cops now have the option of issuing tickets instead.”

The report further stated that if you are African-American that you are 7 times more likely to be arrested for a marijuana offense. These findings are similar to last year’s report issued by the ACLU which noted:

“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.”

These studies are just a few examples of research that links just one of the many social justice issues in the enforcement of our marijuana laws. What we fail to ask though is, do these polices have intended outcomes or unintended consequences that are more damaging than the use of marijuana itself?

I would say yes, but have often wondered why Sabet has difficulty acknowledging the damage that prohibition has done on communities of color despite research and media stories which say otherwise. I have engaged him in the past when he has discounted the most recent ACLU report on racial disparity in enforcement across the country and I shake my head, wondering how he cannot see it. I am not here to malign him as I believe that we can engage in rational discussions surrounding the topic of governance, drug policy, and achieving positive public health outcomes in a democratic society.

But what I believe separates drug policy reformers from Sabet in thinking about the nexus between drug prohibition and social justice is that he has not experienced how enforcement actually works on the streets. Our apathy towards others’ plight changes when we remove our bias and are willing to honestly discuss the effects of the drug war on mass incarceration, enforcement-based racial disparities, law enforcement corruption and brutality that have shown me that the costs associated with drug prohibition and the collateral consequences of its enforcement have adversely impacted society, justice, and the rule of law.

These laws are not merely mean-spirited, as Sabet describes, but morally flawed as the integrity of the entire criminal justice system is called into question based on its impact on those most at risk to the many inequalities resulting from a conviction.