Close to 40 years after Richard Nixon sparked America's "war on drugs," California voters this November get to vote on the war's biggest challenge ever.
It's a ballot proposition making it legal for any Californian 21 or older to grow or use marijuana. If passed, there will be no more requirements to prove medical need (today's law in California and 13 other states). Cannabis would be subject to taxes, potentially yielding billions of dollars in state, county and city levies.
California will be voting in the wake of Gallup polling that shows nationwide support for legalizing marijuana now at 44 percent, an eight-point jump since 2005. Support is higher in California -- recent polls show the legalization initiative leading by margins of 56 percent to 42 percent and 49 percent to 41 percent.
But that doesn't ensure passage: Historically, a modest poll lead for an initiative can melt away, especially as opponents wage fierce negative campaigns close to Election Day. Stiff opposition to the marijuana measure is likely from California's "prison-industrial complex" including police chiefs, prosecutors and prison guards.
Still, the California stage is set by the state's early approval of medical marijuana and the Obama administration's key decision last year to reverse earlier policy to shut down marijuana dispensaries even when countenanced under states" laws.
Voters will likely debate social impacts of legalization versus potential state and local tax gains. But waiting in the wings is a deep moral issue: How marijuana prohibition laws were written in part to subjugate minority populations.
Last week, the California State Conference of the NAACP issued an "unconditional endorsement" of the legalization initiative. Alice Huffman, the group's president, attacked the current marijuana laws as a de facto way to criminalize young black men.
She cited a Drug Policy Alliance report showing that while total marijuana arrests in California spiraled from 20,000 in 1990 to 60,000 in 2008, arrests for "youth of color" rose four times faster. Federal surveys have consistently shown that young whites are more likely to use marijuana than young blacks. But in every one of California's largest 25 urban counties, arrests of African-Americans for possessing marijuana exceed those for whites. In Los Angeles County, blacks are 10 percent of the population but account for 30 percent of marijuana arrests.
"It is time for them to stop using my community to fill the prisons," Huffman said.
And it's not just a California phenomenon. New York City's marijuana arrests are also racially skewed, reports Harry G. Levine, Queens College sociologist. Arrests for small amounts of marijuana in New York City have skyrocketed to unprecedented heights, he reports, with blacks (26 percent of the city's population) making up 52 percent of arrests, and Latinos (27 percent of the population) 31 percent.
For the cops, this is good business, notes Levine: "Narcotics and patrol police, their supervisors and top commanders" benefit from arrests that "are comparatively safe, allow officers and their supervisors to accrue overtime pay, and produce arrest numbers that show productivity."
But for youth -- nearly all handcuffed, put into the back of a police car or van, taken to a local station to be photographed and fingerprinted, and most often held one or more nights in jail -- it's a traumatic experience. Often they can escape longer incarceration by pleading guilty -- but then have a felony conviction likely to haunt them for life.
Yet New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, asked in his first campaign if he'd ever used marijuana, replied: "You bet I did. And I enjoyed it." One in three Americans, and two recent presidents, has also tried the weed.
Small wonder. Marijuana has been used by humans for more than 10,000 years. President Nixon's hand-picked commission on marijuana found that its health impacts are minimal and that the 'gateway" drug theory has no basis. Yet Nixon, as part of his cultural war on black militants, hippies and campus revolutionaries, made marijuana a chief target.
He wasn't the first. As Mexican workers brought marijuana across the border in the early 20th century, local prosecutors and editors publicly decried the "loco weed." One critic associated it not only with Hispanics but "Negroes, prostitutes, pimps, and a criminal class of whites." States began outlawing the drug, one Texas state senator asserting that "all Mexicans are crazy, add this stuff (marijuana) is what makes them crazy."
In the 1930s, Harry Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, spearheaded the campaign to make marijuana possession a federal crime because of "its effect on the degenerate races" -- not only Hispanics but blacks whom he suggested were deluded by "reefer" to "think they're as good as white men."
Ironically, polling shows Hispanics as the only California ethnic voter group leaning against the fall initiative. A refresher on the odious history of marijuana prohibition ought to be enough to shift that.
By Neal Peirce
Washington Post Writers Group
11th July 2010