It was a surreal scene at the Sacramento press conference called by Bishop Ron Allen and a host of other black ministers and faith leaders last July. They blasted the California NAACP for very publicly and vigorously calling for passage of Proposition 19. The initiative would legalize marijuana possession, cultivation and sale for personal use for those 21 and older.
The surreal part of the press conference was that Allen denounced the California NAACP and then in practically the next breath announced that he was a member of the NAACP. In NAACP member Allen’s eyes, the NAACP and especially its California branch president Alice Huffman, who’s been the vocal point person in support of the pot initiative, had badly betrayed the organization’s mandate, “good name” and membership. But had it?
Allen didn’t really say why it was the wrong thing to do to back the initiative other than that supporting legalization discredited the organization. Most opponents of 19 trot out the standard argument that it will encourage wider drug use, pose a safety hazard to drivers and in the workplace, and would directly clash with federal law. Attorney General Eric Holder has already said that passing Proposition 19 will have no affect on federal enforcement. That the feds will still vigorously enforce the anti-marijuana drug laws.
But Huffman and the NAACP have made a compelling case for scrapping the anti-marijuana laws. The strongest of all is that enforcing the marijuana laws as all other drug laws hits hardest at African-Americans. The California Drug Policy Alliance examined marijuana possession arrest figures in 25 California cites between 2006 and 2008 and found that blacks are arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned for marijuana possession in far disproportionate numbers to whites. Studies of arrests in other states almost certainly would show similar racial disparities. The irony is that law enforcement groups which nearly unanimously oppose Proposition 19 do not dispute the racially disproportionate arrest figures. They say it’s simply a matter of better “police professionalism” to insure fairness in drug law enforcement.
That’s little comfort to the thousands of African-Americans jailed for use of pot when legions of white businesspersons, athletes, entertainment figures, and even some politicians (including an ex-president) have openly admitted and in some cases boasted about their use of pot not only for recreational purposes but also for cultivation and sale. As for how much actual medical damage to individuals and to public safety, the use of pot is, the medical jury is way out on that one.
There is little conclusive evidence to show that marijuana use is any more of a health risk than alcohol and tobacco use, and much evidence that it’s less of a health risk. The death toll from chronic smoking and alcoholism numbers in the thousands. Yet these drugs and they are drugs are house hold staples, are regulated, taxed, and provide thousands of jobs and income for workers and growers, and it’s been that way for decades.
Huffman raised the ante in the NAACP’s bold move to back pot legalization. She branded it a civil rights issue. That’s not a stretch. Incarcerating thousands of pot users, mostly black and Latino, maintains and reinforces the racially discriminatory character of the drug laws and its enforcement. This strikes directly to the heart of civil rights and equal protection, or lack thereof, under the law. This is a legitimate concern of civil rights organizations and does not betray the mandate of the NAACP which is as it always has been to fight against racial discrimination in any form.
There’s one more compelling point that drove Huffman and the California NAACP to aggressively lobby for Prop 19’s passage. Enforcement is an enormous drain on tax dollars and resources. Arresting and prosecuting thousands of recreational marijuana users takes time and costs money, time and money that could be used more effectively battling the drug and gang cartels and kingpins. They should be the exclusive focus of law enforcement’s time, energy, and resources. But that’s a far tougher nut to crack.
It’s just easier and simpler to cuff a petty non-white offender, pad the arrest stats, and sell the public on the notion that law enforcement is doing its job and society is protected by cracking down on drug use and users. This is a farce, and the NAACP was right to say so. Polls show that the Proposition after getting initial strong support has lost ground, with the likelihood that it will lose. That’s fine of course with Bishop Allen, and the conservative black ministers who oppose the NAACP on legalization. They will likely continue to hound the NAACP to dump Huffman. Whether or not Prop 19 passes, the disgraceful reality is that blacks suffer from discriminatory drug law enforcement. That’s the smoking truth.