Marijuana Legalization is a Civil Rights Issue
This week's news that the California NAACP is endorsing Prop. 19 to legalize marijuana in California hasn't exactly been met with universal applause in the black community. Anti-pot crusader Bishop Ron Allen thinks it's a conspiracy, Big Ced at News One thinks NAACP is stoned, and blogger Mo' Kelly thinks they've lost sight of the distinction between civil rights and civil liberties:
The issue of decriminalizing marijuana is a separate and distinct discussion from the inherent inequities of the criminal justice system. Both are legitimate issues, but not meant to be commingled.
The NAACP, the nation’s oldest CIVIL RIGHTS organization walking point on the CIVIL LIBERTIES issue of marijuana legalization is a farce and an embarrassment. Let the ACLU do what it does…so the NAACP (in California and beyond) can deal with real CIVIL RIGHTS issues…
Ok, but the two aren't mutually exclusive. Let's not forget how these marijuana laws came about in the first place:
In the eastern states, the "problem" was attributed to a combination of Latin Americans and black jazz musicians. Marijuana and jazz traveled from New Orleans to Chicago, and then to Harlem, where marijuana became an indispensable part of the music scene, even entering the language of the black hits of the time (Louis Armstrong's "Muggles", Cab Calloway's "That Funny Reefer Man", Fats Waller's "Viper's Drag").
Again, racism was part of the charge against marijuana, as newspapers in 1934 editorialized: "Marihuana influences Negroes to look at white people in the eye, step on white men’s shadows and look at a white woman twice." [Why is Marijuana Illegal?]
The decision to prohibit marijuana was fueled by racist hysteria, and many have argued that the decades of racially disparate enforcement that followed weren't entirely coincidental. Whether or not our marijuana laws were intended to serve as an instrument of racial oppression, they've performed that function with staggering precision. And when people of color receive unequal treatment under the law, that's a civil rights issue.
Our marijuana laws have never, and will never, be enforced fairly. The brutality of modern drug enforcement reaches every community, but if young white men were given criminal records and subjected to profiling and police harassment at the same rates as people of color, the criminal justice system would quickly come to a crashing halt. The drug war was built on a foundation of fundamental unfairness, and mitigating its catastrophic impact on communities of color requires measures far more drastic than telling police for the millionth time that there's more to their job than searching young black men all day and night.
No, legalizing marijuana won't solve the problem. Not even close. But what it will do is remove one of the primary justifications police rely upon when stopping and searching people in urban communities. It will stop the hemorrhaging of employment opportunities lost by those convicted of simple possession. It will cripple the existing distribution model, thereby reducing youth involvement, street violence and the cyclical lure of the prohibition economy and the severe criminal justice consequences faced by its participants. It will shield generations from the fate that our formerly pot-smoking President was so desperately lucky to have avoided.
If anyone thinks we can solve these problems while still making nearly a million marijuana arrests every year, then please explain. But don't condemn NAACP for supporting a new approach when the old one has failed as consistently and dramatically as it has.