In the News: Racism and Marijuana Prohibition

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PHOTO: Chuck Grimmett, Creative Commons

The surge of attention marijuana has seen over the last year has been monumental. People are fighting for their rights, demanding access to medication, and protesting jail time over a plant. Women are starting to understand their pivotal role in the success of marijuana legalization by reclaiming their identities as marijuana users, and eroding the unwarranted moral stigma of smoking marijuana. But until relatively recently, the topic of race has largely escaped critical discourse among anyone but drug reform advocates. Finally, President Obama has chosen to speak out against the racial disparity among arrests made in cases of marijuana. Finally, there is a national spotlight on racist laws that work to disempower specific groups of people while other groups get off basically scott free.

A few weeks before the publication of Obama’s interview, MSNBC host Chris Hayes spoke about his brush with the law, in which white privilege helped Hayes escape the criminal justice system. Marijuana was found in his luggage and the police didn’t arrest him or confiscate his marijuana. Hayes understands that the color of his skin largely determined the outcome of this potentially life changing experience:

“I can tell you as sure as I am sitting here before you that if I was a black kid with cornrows instead of a white kid with glasses, my ass would’ve been in a squad car faster than you can say George W. Bush,” said Hayes.

Image: New York Civil Liberties Union

Image: New York Civil Liberties Union

Hayes’ experience as a white man runs counter to the systemic racism that continues to plague the country. For decades,  white people in the US have enjoyed recreational marijuana use with little fear of serious repercussion, while people of color have been unfairly targeted for arrest and incarceration (ala “stop and frisk” policy that was recently struck down in New York).

But some journalists seem blissfully unaware that this racial disparity exists. In his recent New York Times article David Brooks denounced the legalization of marijuana, while perpetuating the unwarranted moral stigma that marijuana users are labeled with. He admitted to smoking as a teen, but eventually stopped because he wished to seek “higher pleasures” and made the decision to give up marijuana. I believe Brooks’ article is a stark representation of white privilege that remains largely unexamined. It seems easy for Brooks to make these biased judgements because he occupies the most privileged identity in america: the white, straight male. A number of white male politicians have admitted to smoking marijuana as well. Most label it as regrettable youthful indiscretion and are anti-legalization, others are less apologetic and support legalization, but all share one commonality: it didn’t seem to affect their lives much, and they were able to finish college and have successful careers. This is not how it is in minority communities.

If we look at the incarceration rates of men of color due to non violent drug charges versus white males, the cry for legalization becomes even louder. The fact is that if Brooks was a black teenager smoking weed versus a white suburbanite, his chances of arrest would be nearly six times the rate of white males. These sobering statistics pulled from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) shed more light on the issue:

  – About 14 million Whites and 2.6 million African Americans report using an illicit drug 

– 5 times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites

– African Americans represent 12% of the total population of drug users, but 38% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 59% of those in state prison for a drug offense. African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months) (Sentencing Project)”

As a white male, Brooks felt free to experiment with marijuana in his youth, without feeling the pressure of a system that intentionally targeted him for crime. I wonder how different his view on the topic of legalization would be if he was stripped of his white privilege and targeted by cruel and unjust drug policies that people of color face every single day.

David Brooks

David Brooks

There is nothing inherently wrong with being a white, straight male, but there is a responsibility to understand the implications of race privilege and its negative affects on people of color.

It’s infuriating when white males with influence (like Brooks) refuse to acknowledge how white privilege works to maintain racial oppression in regard to marijuana prohibition. He seems to be much more concerned with the “moral status of drug use” or “laziness” that may arise if we legalize marijuana – as I would call them, “white people problems.” As far as I’m concerned, Brooks is implying that he would rather collude with oppression by having marijuana remain illegal, thus fueling the black market and continuing a drug war that affects the poorest and most vulnerable populations in our society.

Unexamined racism within our criminal justice system is one of the driving forces behind marijuana prohibition that continues to fuel the prison industrial complex, which works to systematically oppress and destroy the lives of people of color – while lining the pockets of the wealthy (and presumably white). There is nothing just about tearing apart families and eroding communities by throwing people into the criminal justice system over a non-violent crime. Marijuana legalization is clearly  one avenue to fight back against biased racial profiling and inequality within the criminal justice system.

We must examine arguments that promote prohibition through an intersectional lens in order to call out types of systemic oppression (racism, sexism, classism) that work stall legalization and continue to harm humanity today.

The question remains: was Obama’s statement in the New Yorker a sign that change is coming on the federal level? It should be any US president’s duty to be the voice of marginalized people, and to work to create a federal government that is sensitive to issues specific to race and class. Now that the president has admitted his awareness of the racial disparity of marijuana arrests and admitted that marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol, the next logical step should be federal legalization.