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When It Comes to the Drug War, I’m Thankful I’m White

Russ Belville

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This Thanksgiving Day, after 10 years working for marijuana law reform and ending the War on Drugs, I contemplated how I’d write this Thanksgiving column, and almost everything I am thankful for boils down to one word.

Privilege.

I am an able-bodied, tall, healthy, educated, white, heterosexual, cisgender American male. I am just a Bible short of winning the privilege decathlon. And, boy, am I thankful for it.

I don’t mean that in a “white power!” way. I mean it in an “I’d be doing felony time otherwise” way.

I just returned from the International Reform Conference in Washington, D.C., and one major focus was on the intersection of the Black Lives Matter movement and the fight against the drug war.

I’m so grateful to see this development in the movement. For years, I worked for NORML and dug deep into the statistics and history of the drug war. It was always glaringly obvious the drug war was an instrument of enforcing racial apartheid from the beginning. One could not begin to fully address civil rights issues in America without dismantling the War on Drugs.

So where were the NAACP, the black church and other people of color in this fight, I wondered? Why do I look around at my colleagues and see mostly fellow white dudes who are far less likely to ever get busted for weed?

There are numerous reasons for the historical lack of diversity in the reform movement that could fill another column. One of them is that it has required some measure of privilege to openly call for the reform of drug laws. That’s begun to change now, with these conferences, new minority industry groups and even the NAACP getting onboard with reform.

I’ve got a lot to learn, and I listen eagerly to dynamic speakers and read voraciously the works of intelligent writers on these topics. I hope that fellow white reformers take the plunge and become unafraid of addressing the underlying racial issues.

One way would be to recognize the role privilege has played in our lives.

At the conference, I was speaking with a professor who does such a thing, jokingly referring to it as “Hashtag-Lucky-I’m-White.” The professor described a personal experience riding with a fellow white person in the back of a car driven by two Hispanics. The car was pulled over by cops. The two Hispanics were pulled out of the car and ended up on their knees, hands in the air with guns pointed at them. The professor and the white friend were never asked for identification, never pulled from the car and never even talked to.

“At the time, we were heading to a festival, so I’ve got, like, massive quantities of drugs on me,” the professor explained, “and the cops don’t even give me the time of day. Hashtag-Lucky-I’m-White!”

The story impelled me to think of my own #LuckyImWhite moments:

There was that time in the 1990s when I was a passenger in a sports car with the guitar player in my band. We were speeding along a southwestern Idaho freeway at 3 a.m. at some speed greater than 120 mph when we’re stopped by a trooper. We were both fried on meth and holding a decent personal quantity of marijuana. Twenty minutes later, we were driving away with a ticket, not a reckless driving ticket but a simple speeding ticket.

I’m lucky I’m white, and, come to think of it, alive and didn’t kill anyone. I didn’t say I am necessarily proud of these moments. I certainly don’t advocate getting blitzed on hard drugs and trying to set land speed records. But I’m honest about my past in hopes others will learn from my stupidity.

More recently, I was with a white friend in Florida, and she got into a fender bender on the highway. I had recently smoked a joint and was certain I reeked of weed, but after the officer checked my ID, he let me be. He also never even considered a field sobriety test for my friend.

Or just last year in Georgia. Police were summoned to my hotel room. I had invited a bunch of conference friends back for drinks and socializing, and some of them had dropped their stash in the room when they heard the cops were on the way. There I was, facing three police officers who’ve recovered weed, ecstasy and mushrooms in my room. An hour later, they escorted me out of the hotel after giving me a trespassing warning. No criminal charges whatsoever.

I did finally get busted for weed in Utah last year after 25 years of being a pot smoker. But even that required having a dreadlocked Rasta in the group to get the cops into the car-searching mode.

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful I’m white, because I wouldn’t be a free man, writing this column otherwise.

"Radical" Russ Belville hosts 'The Marijuana Agenda' on YouTube, a live weekday news/talk program all about cannabis. Learn more at MJAgenda.com.

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