This past Election Day marked a sea change. Voters turned out in large numbers in support of new, progressive economic policies when they re-elected President Barack Obama. But they didn’t just stop there. In two states, voters also passed measures to legalize the possession of marijuana. Experts say more states will follow with the movement for legalization now at a critical mass and, if they are right, the implications for black Americans could be tremendous.
Colorado and Washington were the first states to make marijuana possession legal. Fourteen states have already decriminalized it, meaning they have removed prison time for first-time offenses. Now, 19 states have laws allowing some form of medicinal marijuana use. These are the latest developments in a movement towards total legalization that began in the 1930s, almost as soon cannabis prohibition began.
“The history of this country’s drug laws are explicitly racist,” said Ryan Grim, author of This Is Your Country on Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America. “The earliest U.S. drug laws were created in San Francisco around the late 1800s. They were anti-opium laws created and enforced to target Chinese immigrants.”
Grim said as time passed and other drugs — including marijuana — became popular, some government officials saw it as an opportunity to target minority groups who were commonly associated with them. This hit a height, he said, during the decline of the Civil Rights Movement, a period of urban unrest and riots in major cities. Politicians looking to appeal to white voters ran campaigns promising law and order. “The easiest way to keep those promises was with new policy around drugs,” Grim said.
But according to the research, black Americans aren’t the primary users of marijuana – not even close. Only 11 percent of marijuana users are black, according to the D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, compared to the 77 percent of users who are white. Still blacks comprise 32 percent of marijuana arrests and 44 percent of convictions nationally. It’s for this reason that the Colorado branch of the NAACP backed its state amendment for legalization, citing it as a civil rights issue.
“Marijuana prohibition policy does more harm to our communities than good,” said the organization’s president, Rosemary Harris Lytle, in a statement. Her sentiments were echoed in 2010 when California was considering a similar legislative initiative.
California NAACP president Alice Huffman said then, “We have empirical proof that the application of the marijuana laws has been unfairly applied to our young people of color. Justice is the quality of being just and fair and these laws have been neither just nor fair.”
Voters in the state later rejected the legalization proposition, led partly by moral opposition, which included members of the black church.
“We can’t trust the NAACP,” said Rev. Anthony Evans of the National Black Church Initiative, an organization reporting membership of 34,000 black churches across the country. He sees pro-marijuana laws as a distraction from more pressing issues.
“The first thing we have to do is make sure our people aren’t high on marijuana,” he said. “The black community has been the victim of drugs and the black church is charged with protecting the community and keeping families together. We have to break ties with the NAACP on this issue.”
Pro-marijuana activist say, however, that existing drug laws only serve to break up black families, sending scores of black Americans to jail every year.