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Feature: Race and Reefer -- the African American Vote in California's Marijuana Legalization Initiative

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #639)

With the clock ticking down toward Election Day in November, both proponents and opponents of California's Control and Tax Cannabis marijuana legalization initiative, now known officially as Proposition 19, are going after the African American vote. As things currently stand, the community is highly supportive of marijuana legalization in principle, but not necessarily of the initiative itself at this time.

A Survey USA poll done in April found that support for marijuana legalization among blacks was at 67%, the highest level of any major ethnic group in the state. Whites were second at 59%, followed by Asians at 58% and Hispanics at 45%. The findings are consistent with other polls that show similar high levels of support for pot legalization in the state's black community.

Bishop Allen and police lobbying last January against the Ammiano legalization bill, Sacramento
But demonstrating that nothing is a given in the wild word of ballot campaigns, a Field Poll released Friday morning showed Prop. 19 slipping from being slightly ahead to slightly behind (44%-48% this time), with African Americans giving it only 40%.

While African Americans constitute only 5.8% of the state's electorate, the November vote is shaping up to be extremely close, and holding onto key constituencies, even relatively small ones, could end up making the difference on Election Day.

Author and political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson is one of those black people who are ready to free the weed. "I fully support legalization," he told the Chronicle. "The drug wars have criminalized a generation of young blacks, destabilized families, further impoverished communities, and wildly expanded the prison-industrial complex. It is costly, wasteful and ineffective. It drains precious tax dollars, public resources, and public policy initiatives from expansion and improvement of health, education, and businesses, social services and urban reconstruction. It's been well documented that for a faction of the billions spent on a racially-tinged wasteful drug war, if spent on skills training, drug counseling, prevention, job creation, and family support programs thousands of lives could be reclaimed."

Legalization backers have been working hard in recent weeks to solidify and even extend such sentiments. At the end of last month, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) issued a report, Targeting Blacks for Marijuana, demonstrating that African-Americans bear the brunt of marijuana law enforcement in California. The report, authored by Queens College sociologist Harry Levine, examined marijuana arrests in California's 25 most populous counties and found a consistent, statewide pattern of racial disparities in who was getting arrested for pot possession.

Despite blacks using marijuana at a slightly lower rate than whites, blacks were more than three times as likely to be arrested for possession in the counties of Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, and Sonoma, and more than twice as likely to be arrested in Contra Costa, Fresno, Orange, Riverside, Sacramento, San Bernadino, Santa Clara, and Solano counties.

In Los Angeles, blacks make up 10% of the population, but constitute 30% of pot possession busts. In San Diego, blacks are 5.6% of the population, but account for 20% of arrests. In Sacramento, blacks get busted at a rate nearly four times one would expect based on the demographics. They make up 10.4% of the population in the state capital, but account for a whopping 38% of pot possession arrests.

"The findings in this report are a chilling reminder of the day-to-day realities of marijuana prohibition and the large-scale racist enforcement at its core," said Stephen Gutwillig, DPA's California director. "Racial justice demands ending this policy disaster and replacing it with a sensible regulatory system that redirects law enforcement to matters of genuine public safety. Proposition 19 is California's exit strategy from its failed war on marijuana."

"Patrol and narcotics police face enormous pressure to meet arrest and ticket quotas. Marijuana arrests are a relatively safe and easy way to meet them, but they don't reduce serious crime," said Levine. "However, these mass arrests can impact the life chances of young African Americans, who actually consume marijuana at lower rates than young whites."

The release of the report was accompanied by a political bombshell: the endorsement of Proposition 19 by the California NAACP, announced by state chapter head Alice Huffman at a June 29 press conference. Also attending the conference were other prominent black leaders, including Aubry Stone, head of the California Black Chamber of Commerce.

Citing the report, Huffman called ending pot prohibition a civil rights issue. Marijuana prohibition has criminalized many young people and hampered the ability of African-Americans to thrive, she said.

"This is not a war on the drug lords, this is a war against young men and women of color," Huffman told the press conference. "Once a person is arrested and brought under the criminal justice system, he or she is more likely to be caught in the criminal justice system again, further wasting tax dollars."

Not every West Coast African American agrees with Huffman, and one who pointedly doesn't is Bishop Ron Allen, head of the International Faith-Based Coalition, which claims to represent some 4,100 congregations worldwide, and which has emerged as a loud locus of opposition to legalization. Allen's commanding presence and stentorian oratory have become a fixture at the state house whenever marijuana is on the agenda, and he has become a go-to guy for reporters seeking opposition viewpoints. The CA NAACP's endorsement of Prop. 19 has Allen calling for Huffman's political head.

"We would like for Alice Huffman to step down as state president immediately," Bishop Allen told the Chronicle, adding that he was depending on the national NAACP to take action. "We think Alice Huffman is advocating getting the black man high. Let's decriminalize so the black man can continue to smoke without fear of arrest is not the answer. The NAACP is supposed to advance colored people, but how can you do that when you advocate continuing to have an illicit drug in their lives?"

Allen, a self-described former seven-year crack addict, is passionate, but his arguments tend to ring of Reefer Madness and the standard anti-pot playbook. "This isn't the same marijuana. The THC is so much higher," he said.

"Marijuana is still a gateway drug," he continued. "We are seeing more teens enter treatment because of marijuana," he added, neglecting to mention that a majority of them are there because they got busted and were ordered there by a court.

"Legalize a drug, and it will be more accessible to our youth," Allen said. "We will have more drug babies, more murders, more rapes. Legalization will lead to more incarceration of the black man, not less."

And sometimes Allen goes so far as to strain credulity. Attacking Huffman for associating with DPA, he said "you can't be in cahoots with the biggest drug dealers in the nation." Moments later he repeated the outlandish claim, saying "everybody knows the Drug Policy Alliance are drug dealers."

That drew a tart response from DPA's Tommy McDonald. "As someone who's never sold drugs or done hard drugs, I take great exception to Mr. Allen's characterization of Drug Policy Alliance employees and its members. And as a black man, I am particularly disappointed that Allen is doing the bidding of people who would love nothing more than to see our prisons filled with black and Latino youth," he said. "While his conviction is admirable, Allen's irrational and uninformed (and drug war financed, I might add) Reefer Madness propaganda is transparent and predictable. I wish him no ill will, but he might want to stick to the teachings of his Bible and not 'bear false witness against thy neighbor.' I would expect a so-called man of the cloth to know better."

Allen's views may be extreme, but they do reflect those of part of the black community, said Hutchinson. "Many blacks fear legalization could lead to greater drug use, crime and violence," he observed. "Others agree that legalization would do just the opposite."

While Allen declared himself confident Prop. 19 would be defeated in the fall, his role in the eventual outcome will probably be insignificant, said veteran scene-watchers. "I think the Bishop is basically a one-man band," scoffed Dale Gieringer, head of California NORML. "He's got his church there in Sacramento, and I've only ever encountered him at legislative hearings. I heard him give passionate but ludicrous testimony about how pot should remain illegal because he almost ruined himself with drugs in a market where drugs were illegal."

Gieringer doubted that Bishop Allen would have much impact one way or the other. "His stuff will resonate with his crowd and some religious people, but positions are already fairly fixed. People are either for or against, and the undecided vote is small," he said. "I don't think an angry black preacher is going to have much impact on them."

Will California's black population support Prop. 19? We will find out on Election Day, but the Bishop Allen notwithstanding, support for marijuana legalization in the community is strong. Whether more of it can be won over to Prop. 19 itself, the next few months will tell the new DPA report and the endorsement by the state NAACP are a good start.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Patrick O'Keeffe (not verified)

It seems Bishop Allen does 'bear false witness against thy neighbors' which makes him just another fake, right? Let's give him the benefit of the doubt and just call him 'ignorant.'

Fri, 07/09/2010 - 2:37pm Permalink
Anonymous321 (not verified)

In reply to by Patrick O'Keeffe (not verified)

But he's not ignorant of the truth. He has supposed to have been there and, unless he's just plain stupid, should know better.He's just a whore after power and money and should be exposed as such.

Fri, 07/09/2010 - 3:51pm Permalink
Rubblebeam (not verified)

IF Bishop Allen is taking money from any Prohibitionist entity, THEN I personally would go further than 'merely ignorant', as his comments seem to me to only restate the standard lines handed out by those who profit from this War on Drugs. This might point to 'bear false witness against thy neighbor', am I too extreme to say he is a Judas?

Fri, 07/09/2010 - 6:10pm Permalink
Johnny (not verified)

I'm not buying Bishop Allen's hypocritical and speculative stance! More rapes and murders? WHAT? This man is indeed VERY misinformed. Where's the evidence to support such claims? THERE IS NONE!
I've noticed prohibitionists will say anything to support their unfounded claims while legalization advocates actually SUPPORT THEIR CLAIMS WITH "REAL" EVIDENCE! I've seen it time and time again. Fear, Intimidation and a "divide and conquer" mentality" with unfounded statistics that are skewed to support 70 yr. old lies!! ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!
What makes Mr. Allen such an expert about Cannabis? Oh...I see now..."Allen, a self-described former seven-year crack addict" ......need I say more? YES ON PROP.19! Let Freedom Ring!

Fri, 07/09/2010 - 6:49pm Permalink
Anonymous0 (not verified)

"The survey found that 44% of voters said they supported the measure, compared with 48% who said they were against it. The poll of 1,005 likely voters was conducted June 22 to July 5 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.

The measure did best among white non-Hispanic voters and younger voters. All other ethnic groups broken out in the survey -- Latinos, African Americans and Asian Americans -- are strongly opposed to the measure."

Sat, 07/10/2010 - 3:07am Permalink
mlang52 (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous0 (not verified)

Is it not obvious, with the 3.2 margin of error, that it could easily be 47.2% for and 44.8% against? Maybe we should make the opposition think they are winning! Then, they might get more complacent when the voting actually occurs!

One thing is for sure. It is too close for any of them to call!

Sat, 07/10/2010 - 12:27pm Permalink
Anonymous0 (not verified)

In reply to by mlang52 (not verified)

"Is it not obvious, with the 3.2 margin of error, that it could easily be 47.2% for and 44.8% against?"

That's still not good. However, it's still early and three months is an infinity in an election season. But it does show that we definitely need to take our game to the next level. I'm wondering why the leader of the campaign doesn't get somebody like Mason Tvert of SAFER to advise his campaign. Where are the child abuse, rape and domestic violence victims speaking out against the policies this man is promoting, which are dangerously driving people to drink instead of making the more responsible choice of using SAFER marijuana?

Sat, 07/10/2010 - 2:58pm Permalink
Anonymous1 (not verified)

According to New American Media, Hispanic and Asians are adamantly opposed to legalization, and Blacks are somewhat opposed

Tue, 07/13/2010 - 4:59am Permalink
Pfarthing6 (not verified)

While I would agree to "not bear ill will" toward these misinformed folks, we have to also remember that this is a W-A-R. We didn't start it, but we darned well better do what it takes to end it.

It's a WAR on US! We, are being discriminated against, profiled, condemned as unworthy human beings, and stuck in cages merely for our slight cultural deviancy with those who consider themselves both the Majority and also Moraly Superior, and they are neither.

We can't act like a bunch of laid back hippies to make this happen ...not that there's anything wrong with laid back hippies, but they don't like to fight. And we MUST FIGHT!

We must fight for our right to make CHOICES in our own lives, be they good ones or bad. There are many people who are addicts, addiction is a problem. It is a PSYCHOLOGICAL DISORDER and has nothing to do with drugs. A crack addict becomes a power addict, from DRUGS to RELIGION, from ADDICTION TO ESCAPE to ADDICTION TO CONTROL. Almost all of the biggest pundits who are for prohibition have or had some addiction problems in their lives. This is NO COINCIDENCE! These people who once lived in FEAR now use fear to justify their new belief system. They INFLICT their belief system on others to justify their own just as slave owners and southern whites onces spread their beliefs that the NEGRO was an INFERIOR RACE to bolster their own beliefs that WHITES ARE BETTER.

While the War on Drugs is not fully about RACISM, it is FULLY ABOUT DISCRIMINATION.

All we need to do is LISTEN CLOSELY to those who rant on about how bad drugs are and you will always hear the VOICE OF SUPERIORITY, that they who obstain are BETTER THAN US!


Even those who claim THE LAW as their core belief should be reminded that LAWS CHANGE by THE WILL OF THE PEOPLE. Those that use the Law as their platform must be reminded that the RULE OF LAW, does not mean THE LAW RULES ALL, it means that it is a MEASURE FOR CONDUCT, a STRUCTURE IN WHICH WE ARE ABLE TO WORK TOGETHER.


And laws and government actions that CLEARLY VIOLATE THE CONSTITUTION are ILLEGAL!

READ THE CONSTITUTION. It is both CLEAR and CONSCISE. It describes what the governernment MAY NOT DO and secures our INALIENABLE RIGHTS, not as citizens, but as FREE MEN (and women), who are ALL CREATED EQUAL. This in itself negates the OPPRESSION OF THE MINORITY.

Our Founding Fathers knew about oppression well and did not want to create another place for an aristocracy to arise, BUT IT HAS ARISEN, it uses ideas like "patriot" and "law abiding citizen" and "God" and "Majority" to spread SELF DOUBT and FEAR among all those who would dissent.

Our country was the NEW WORLD, but it has slipped back into the old world. It is the UNQUESTIONABLE DUTY of every citizen to stand up and defend his/her inalienable rights, to defend the Constitution, and to take down those who have coopted and corrupted our government for their own purposes.

We must see the hypocrisy, both ours and theirs.

We can't simultaneously advocate personal freedom and choice while at the same be in favor of banning guns.

We cannot be against unfunded Federal mandates like No Child Left Behind and for an unfunded National Healthcare mandate.

We cannot be in favor of Social Security and against Taxes.

We cannot be in favor of smaller government that does not invade our lives while at the same time use government to enforce our personal view of morality.

While we each may not agree on all subjects, we MUST STAND TOGETHER IN THIS TIME OF CRISIS, put our differences aside, and work toward building a FREE COUNTRY once more. A country where we are free to WORK OUT OUR DIFFERENCES without FEAR OF PERSECUTION. A country where we all NEED NOT AGREE ON ALL THINGS, but DO AGREE ON ONE THING:


Tue, 07/13/2010 - 2:55pm Permalink
A Free Man (not verified)

I'll never support Control and Tax. Why should I have to pay some extortionist for something I already have the right to do? So called sin taxes are an abomination in a so called free country. I am an adult and as such, I have the right to decide for myself what I do with my body. I'll never voluntarily pay extortion to some goon with a machine gun in order to gain their permission to do something I already have the right to do anyway. My smoking doesn't impose costs on anyone, nor will my avoiding the extortionists tax force some other chump to carry my weight. Therefore, the control and tax crowd, though perhaps well meaning are just grovelling before their masters begging and paying tribute in exchange for living like free people.
Also, in light of the extortionists track record in using tax revenues to fund programs to persecute and harass the tax payers, I don't see any upside to giving them more money, It's nearly guaranteed that they'll use the money to finance a stupid and/or oppressive and/or fraudulent scheme.

Thu, 07/15/2010 - 11:10pm Permalink

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