“Whether it’s by design or just because of structural racism, the outcome is that many African-Americans are put into the criminal justice system at very young ages,” Grim countered. “Nationwide legalization would mean a lot. You have almost a million people arrested every year for marijuana offenses, almost all of them simple possession. Not all wind up in jail but all have dramatic consequences: a [criminal] record, money spent on lawyers, they could even lose their job waiting to go to court. Then there are the millions of people on parole or probation. For them, the Bill of Rights is thrown out the window. They can’t associate with certain people, leave the state, or even vote.”
Today, 51 percent of Americans favor the legalization of marijuana, according to a poll conducted by Quinnipiac University. Black Americans favor it by 57 percent. Both figures have increased steadily over the years.
“People in this country have been exposed to misinformation about marijuana their entire lives,” said Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML. “They’ve been led to believe it’s more harmful than it really is and as a result a lot of people have to overcome that concern. The government is also coming to understand that prohibition fails and regulations works. They see that in recent years tobacco and alcohol use have dropped to historic lows, not from prohibition but controls and regulations. We should apply that approach to marijuana.”
After the laws passed in Colorado and Washington, President Obama told the press that enforcing marijuana laws was not a top priority of his administration, perhaps signaling a step back on the part of federal agencies. Officials at NORML, who have watched the conversation around marijuana policy for 40 years, expect legalization within the next 5-10 years with California, Oregon and Massachusetts being next in line.
“It won’t be a one-size-fits-all policy,” Armentano said. “It’ll most likely look like our regulation of alcohol after prohibition. Even now there are some regions that are dry, allow open containers, or don’t sell on Sundays. We have age restrictions and laws around driving. We’ll get a patchwork regulatory system.” And in developing that system, Armentano believes conversations about discrimination in enforcing drug laws should be front and center.
Yet currently, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is staunchly against the legalization of marijuana. Recently, the Los Angeles Times accused the agency of preventing the release of the drug for scientific studies that could prove its effectiveness as a medical treatment, despite the desire to conduct such studies by the medical community. A judge presiding over a critical case determined that marijuana would remain a Schedule 1 drug – deemed dangerous and of no redeeming value – based on the lack of such studies.
The Huffington Post reports that the DEA reinforced this anti-pot message in a financial statement made public last Wednesday, which in part reads: “Legalizing marijuana would increase accessibility and encourage promotion and acceptance of drug use.”
Time will tell whether the pro-marijuana movement will be able to counter such opposition. Activists such as Armentano have faith that, as the associations between race and injustice in drug enforcement comes to light — particularly as it relates to marijuana — enough empowering momentum will be built to ensure a positive change.
“The way institutional racism and current drug policy work hand in hand hasn’t been something that has gained real traction in the national conversation around legalization. But in the near future, I expect it to be a driving force,” Armentano said. “Imprisoning countless people of color is one of the most egregious applications of the law. It’s also one of the most persuasive points for reform.”
Follow Donovan X. Ramsey on Twitter at @idxr