Will new Obama policy on marijuana be a boon for black America?

OPINION - This shift in the position of the Obama administration could mean relief for those facing prison sentences, an end to the hundreds of thousands of marijuana arrests that have happened in Washington and Colorado over the years...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Earlier this month, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Obama administration’s commitment to reduce harsh mandatory sentencing policies enacted as part of the “war on drugs,” which have resulted in a major community crisis: hundreds of thousands of prisoners, most of whom are black or brown, behind bars for relatively minor charges.

Many were wondering what position they would take in regards to the 20 states defying federal law by allowing legal access to marijuana for medical purposes or Washington and Colorado, who have gone even further by legalizing marijuana outright even though it is still considered a Schedule 1 narcotic and is illegal at the federal level.

Now the White House has broken their silence on this issue. Eric Holder publicly announced the U.S. government will not interfere with states deciding to change their marijuana laws. These moves present a monumental shift in the drug war.

Sentencing reform, if executed effectively, could result in a significant portion of the largely black and Latino men and women with low level drug offenses getting a fairer shake under the law. Likewise, this unprecedented step giving a green light to states that choose to make pot legal will mean fewer people being criminalized for consuming and selling the plant, which is also a real game changer.

In 2011, of the 1.5 million drug arrests made, 750,000 were for marijuana. People of color make up the overwhelming majority of those targeted by law enforcement. In every step, from those who are stop and frisked to those convicted and sent to serve time, the drug war certainly picks favorites. According to a recent report from the ACLU, black people are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for a marijuana arrest, even though marijuana consumption is fairly even across races.

And despite the fact that most Americans have used marijuana and/or think it should be legal, marijuana consumption can be selectively seized as a weapon to discredit the character of young black men in the courts, as evidenced during George Zimmerman’s trial for killing Trayvon Martin.

Marijuana prohibition is heavily steeped in racism from its very origin. The original anti-marijuana laws were proposed to target black people and Mexicans. Today they are used to justify routine police harassment of young black and Latino men who “fit the profile” and are suspicious merely on the basis of daring to be out in public and existing in their skin. And marijuana arrests, even when they don’t result in serious criminal penalties, establish a permanent record that can exclude people from opportunities for jobs, housing, schooling and student loans.

This shift in the position of the Obama administration could mean relief for those facing prison sentences, an end to the hundreds of thousands of marijuana arrests that have happened in Washington and Colorado over the years, and it empowers those of us around the country who have been calling for an end to marijuana prohibition because we are sick of the wasted dollars, ruined lives and racism that this policy has enabled.

Other states now have the opportunity to follow Washington and Colorado but how else will we right the wrongs suffered? I would argue that especially because people of color have been forced to bear the brunt of marijuana prohibition, we should reap benefits from its long-awaited end – and not only in terms of not getting arrested but also with economic opportunity.

First, when marijuana becomes legal, there is a huge cost-savings. It is estimated that the government spends as much as $20 billion a year on marijuana prohibition. It begs the question of what to do with the money once that is all over.

New York City’s Comptroller John Liu released a study this year calculating the financial impact of taxing and regulating marijuana. In addition to saving roughly $31 million annually by reducing arrests, there could be as much as $400 million gained by the city in tax revenue. Liu suggests investing money on public services and city universities. Brilliant idea. Let’s stop harassing young men and women of color and instead make it easier for them to get a quality education.

The second idea might be unconventional thinking but hey it happened after alcohol prohibition. People are going to be making money off of this new market – after all, marijuana represents a big business opportunity —  why not create jobs for the people who were already pushed into the trade because of job discrimination and few forms of employment (delete “were”) available for them in the legal market? Like the former alcohol bootleggers who transitioned into legitimacy, why can’t the guy trying to help his family get by selling a little bit of weed now become an entrepreneur in the new industry?

The Obama administration’s new posture around the drug war is a big deal. It is exciting to know that real changes in our country’s unfair and cruel system of drug law enforcement are on the horizon. But once the foot of the state is officially off our backs, perhaps we can think about using this as a moment to not only survive but to thrive under the new post-prohibition system.

Sharda Sekaran is the Communications Director of the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org)