Michael Eric Dyson is a sociology professor at Georgetown University and an MSNBC political analyst. Malik Burnett is a former surgeon and policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance.
Not even the threat of legal penalty has kept marijuana users from making it the most commonly used recreational drug after alcohol and tobacco. But in black America, marijuana’s harsh penalty is evergreen: It is a consistent gateway into jails that lock away mostly young black folk, including those who don’t have prior arrest records.
Society colors our perception of the people who use marijuana. White marijuana users are often perceived as good people who made a mistake; black marijuana users bear the stigma of “criminals” or “thugs.” The gap in perception has real consequences, as seen in the inequitable arrests and unjust sentencing across racial lines. Every day, the danger of this disparity floods our legal system, and nothing short of legalization of marijuana use will stem the tide. Fifty-eight percent of Americans already support this policy, and it is time we affirmed their wisdom.
Reports show that African Americans receive more frequent and heavier sentences for marijuana-related arrests despite using the drug about as much as whites. Young black men are 10 times more likely than white men to be arrested for drug crimes. This glaring injustice is especially clear in our nation’s capital.
The District leads the nation in marijuana arrests per capita and boasts an arrest rate for marijuana dealing that more than doubles any other state. The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that the District spends $26 million each year on marijuana law enforcement alone. District police officers stalk primarily black neighborhoods using undercover officers and informants to place low-income people of color under heightened surveillance. It’s no wonder that, in a city whose population is only about half black, 91 percent of all marijuana arrests are of black people. Between 2001 and 2010, the number of white people arrested for marijuana use remained relatively steady while the number of black people arrested increased to 4,908 from 3,228.
Disparities in police stops, prosecutorial charging and sentencing decisions have wreaked havoc in black communities. Harsh sentences have been catastrophic, causing the loss of jobs, homes, the ability to attend schools, voting rights and even children. Reports that black residents are eight times more likely to be arrested finally spurred the D.C. Council to decriminalize marijuana, reducing penalties for marijuana-related arrests.
Yet, reviews of marijuana decriminalization laws in 18 states show that discrimination persists even after these laws go into effect. In the early days of decriminalization in the District, roughly 77 percent of the tickets for marijuana possession were issued in minority neighborhoods.
In November, District voters will have a chance to begin correcting decades of injustice by making small-scale possession of marijuana legal for adult private use. Initiative 71 will allow residents of the District age 21 and older to possess up to two ounces of marijuana for personal use and to grow up to six plants. The initiative does not account for sales or the production of marijuana.
If Initiative 71 is approved, the D.C. Council could go a long way in reducing street-corner drug dealing, police clashes and violence. Instead of marijuana being sold in the shadows, the council could regulate, monitor and set strict guidelines to protect communities.
The council must enact legislation to address the additional damages caused by the war on drugs. It has begun this work by moving a bill that would seal the records of people arrested for some marijuana-related offenses. However, additional reforms should be included, such as removing marijuana from employment drug-testing policies, ensuring that the new marijuana economy benefits communities previously harmed by the policies of prohibition and earmarking the tax revenue generated from the sale of marijuana for the redevelopment of those communities.
The evidence at this point is clear: The long-term health effects of incarceration are far worse than the long-term health effects of marijuana use. Marijuana prohibition enforcement is patently unjust. It is not applied equally, it does not curtail marijuana use and it does not protect young people. After all, drug dealers don’t check IDs.
Initiative 71 is the first step in the broader effort to develop a new system based on economic and racial justice.