Marijuana Legalization Is A Civil Rights Movement

Photo by Vortex Farmacy

I spoke on a beautiful Atlanta morning at Washington Park this 4/20. I was the invited guest of Peachtree NORML, and this was the first of three events at which I was a participant.

But it was unlike any marijuana legalization event at which I’ve spoken in my dozen years of activism.

“In my 12 years of speaking at these rallies,” I told the crowd, “this is the first time I have seen more black faces in the crowd than white ones.”

When I was NORML’s National Outreach Coordinator from 2008-2012, that was something that always vexed me. The more I dug into the history and statistics of marijuana prohibition, the more obviously racist it was.

The ACLU has reported that African-Americans are almost four times as likely to be busted for weed as European-Americans. That’s even though, generally speaking, blacks and whites use, deal and grow cannabis at roughly the same rates.

Yet most of the time when I’m speaking at events protesting the War on Drugs, finding people of color in the crowd is like playing “Where’s Waldo?” They’re not after middle-aged white folks like me for weed, but it was mostly people like me leading the charge to end marijuana prohibition.

Since then, through more reading and conversation, I’ve come to realize many factors at play that depressed turnout among African-Americans in the fight to end marijuana prohibition. When one already “matches the description of a suspect” in the eyes of police, being an open marijuana legalization advocate compounds that problem. When one looks to the leadership of a movement and sees no one like themselves, one might not feel welcome. When the leadership in black politics, civil rights and the church confuse the effects of drug prohibition with the drugs themselves, one might not want to be perceived as supporting those effects on the black community.

But lately, that is beginning to change. Black leaders are beginning to understand what I’ve believed all along; fighting marijuana prohibition is a civil rights movement.

The real trail blazer in bringing African-Americans around to understanding the civil rights aspect of fighting prohibition was Professor Michelle Alexander when she published her seminal work, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Era of Colorblindness, in early 2010. Alice Huffman of the California NAACP followed suit by bringing the organization around to support the failed Prop 19 legalization effort, at great risk to her own career.

Yesterday, powerful black leaders in Atlanta followed suit by publicly supporting marijuana reform.

I met two black Georgia state senators at the events who spoke truth to power. Senator Harold Jones declared that “marijuana is not the gateway to harder drugs; marijuana prohibition is the gateway to mass incarceration.” Senator Vincent Fort is running for mayor of Atlanta on a platform that demands municipal marijuana decriminalization.

I met strong black women who spoke of prohibition’s impact on their families and neighborhoods, including a former State Representative Dee Dawkins Haigler who led Georgia’s Legislative Black Caucus, the largest such organization in any state legislature.

I met aspiring black entrepreneurs, including “Coach” Harris, a wrestling coach turned business consultant who is now guiding young black men through the politics, community organization and investment needed to change the marijuana laws in Georgia.

I even spoke at length with a black trooper from Georgia State Patrol watching over the event who quizzed me at length about my marijuana use—genuinely curious to learn factual information, not trying to entrap or intimidate me.

(He struggled to understand when I told him I smoke marijuana about every four hours every day while composing 2,000-to-5,000 words worth of articles, research and scripts for a live two-hour talk show, when I’m not flying 100,000 air miles a year to come speak in places like Atlanta. “But you wouldn’t have blinked an eye if I told you I did all that work while taking a pain pill every four hours, would you?”)

As I spoke to the crowd at Washington Park, I went into historical detail about the racist origins of marijuana prohibition, from 1905 accounts in the Los Angeles Times of marijuana-crazed Mexican killers, the 1911 testimony from California’s Board of Pharmacy about the Hindus “initiating our whites into [the cannabis indica] habit”, culminating in Harry J. Anslinger’s infamous 1930s quotes that “marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes” and “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”

For many in the crowd who I met later on, though, the real civil rights lightbulb moment was my reading of this quote from John Ehrlichmann, President Nixon’s domestic advisor. He told this to journalist Dan Baum in 1994, right here in Atlanta, about the genesis of the War on Drugs:

“You want to know what this was really all about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

None of the support for ending marijuana prohibition should be construed as a cure for racism in our criminal justice system.

After all, we’ve found that in the states that legalize, those busted for the remaining marijuana crimes are still disproportionately black. However, legalizing marijuana has reduced the total number of arrests, which is nonetheless a good thing for the black community.

For instance, Washington had over 5,000 misdemeanor arrests per year for marijuana possession between one and 40 grams leading up to 2012. Those were heavily weighted toward black people.

After legalization, arrests for the remaining 29-to-40-gram misdemeanor were still heavily weighted toward black people, but there were less than 150 total arrests. So, legalization ended the arrests of thousands of black people, even if the remaining arrests are still racially biased.

As I concluded for the crowd in Washington Park, “Legalizing marijuana isn’t going to cure four centuries of racism. But you can’t begin to address four centuries of racism without legalizing marijuana.”

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