A recent Gallup poll indicates that 50 percent of Americans are in favor of legalizing the recreational use of marijuana. African-Americans tend to hold more conservative views on drug legalization, in spite of the fact that African-Americans are far more likely to be arrested and prosecuted for marijuana possession than their white counterparts.
Proponents of marijuana legalization say that this perspective might change if there were greater awareness around the foundation of the "War on Drugs" in the United States. "There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the origin of these laws was intended to be [utilized as] the new Jim Crow. In order to criminalize large swaths of the population," said James Clark, a criminal defense attorney in Oakland, California.
Why efforts to soften pot laws are at an all-time high
African-Americans are often categorized as politically liberal. However, the black church has a large influence on the moral compass of the African-American community. This often-conservative influence might provide an insight into why African-Americans are against relaxing the drug laws that often split up their own families.
Rev. Dr. Cecelia GreeneBarr says, simply legalizing marijuana would not address the core issues at the heart of substance abuse. "At the root of it [drug use] is despair, at not being able to have a better quality of life. I think there is another way to deal with despair."
GreeneBarr, the pastor of Smith Chapel AME church in Inkster, Michigan says that black communities have been negatively impacted by vice, from prostitution to illegal drugs and the lines of personal discipline have been muted. GreeneBarr says, relaxing drug laws is not the way to reform the African-American communities interaction with the criminal justice system.
"From the perspective of a trained clergy person, it is not in our best interest to tip our hat at various forms of vice under the allusion that it will make our communities safer."
GreeneBarr expressed concern that people would continue to be arrested and incarcerated for crimes connected to marijuana intoxication even if marijuana were legal.
"When people drink and drive, they kill people because they are drunk. When you get high, you have the potential to do the same thing."
Attorney James Clark, a lecturer at Oaksterdam University, a college in Oakland, California which prepares students for various roles in the cannabis industry, says that there is a lot of misunderstandings surrounding the effects of marijuana intoxication.
"The reality is that it is a much more mild effect than alcohol. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has found that being under the influence of marijuana while driving is much safer," said Clark, in comparing alcohol intoxication to that of marijuana. According to Clark, "The negative effects that are perceived show the strength of propaganda."
Ending prohibition against marijuana would also have an impact on the black market that currently surrounds the sale and consumption of the substance. According to Clark there are many people who currently make a living selling marijuana underground who would appreciate being brought into the light.
"There are some people that sell marijuana that would be happy for legalization. They believe in their product and would probably think of ways to sell it differently and still make a living."
Some leaders have taken a more progressive stance on the issue as a result of the War on Drugs' detrimental impact on the African-American community. In a July op-ed , in the Chicago Sun-Times Rev. Jesse Jackson referred to the war on drugs as a dismal failure. He called for the decriminalization of marijuana and said that the U.S should begin to view drug addiction as it does alcoholism and treat both as public health problems.
The NAACP's California chapter supported Proposition 19, the 2010 California ballot initiative which would have legalized small amounts of marijuana for personal use and allowed local municipalities to tax the substance.
The concept that marijuana use provides a 'gateway' to the abuse of stronger drugs like cocaine and heroin continues to be debated. In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Stephen Gutwillig, California State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance said, "Marijuana is indeed a gateway drug; it is a feeder for the criminal justice system disproportionably for black kids."
Since 1975, the possession of less than one ounce of marijuana in California has been punishable with a fine and no jail time. Medical marijuana has been legal in California since 1996. Arrests for marijuana possession have skyrocketed in California since the early 1990s amongst non-whites. It appears that the decriminalization of small amounts of pot and the implementation of legal medical marijuana laws do not impact high arrest rates in communities of color.
In 2008, blacks were seven times more likely than white New Yorkers to be arrested for marijuana possession. In spite of the fact that national drug surveys report that whites consume more marijuana.
In New York City, this disparity is largely due to a policing strategy known as 'stop and frisk', which is employed more vigorously in communities of color. Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has admitted to smoking pot, entered office in 2002; more people have been arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession than under any other administration.
When Mayor Bloomberg announced an initiative to help under and unemployed black and Latino men, some observers were puzzled. "He's talking out of both sides of his mouth," said Christine Dudley-Daniels, a retired social worker. "He thinks he can placate whatever group...whoever is watching at the time."
By Chelsea-Lyn Rudder
October 21, 2011