Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

Legalization of pot a white and black issue

  • Print

KEVIN FRAYER / THE CANADIAN PRESS Enlarge Image

Has the new year started out on a high or a drugged-out low? The decriminalization of marijuana in Washington and Colorado has been heralded as the end of prohibition — and alternately lamented as the rock-bottom of America’s morality.

But few have acknowledged the obvious: The media’s images of mostly scruffy-looking, smiling people, lined up to score some newly legal dope, are overwhelmingly white.

Now imagine the reaction — from the media, your mother and the Justice Department — if these lines were filled with young Hispanics or African Americans with cornrows, do-rags and sagging pants? We can almost hear the conversation shifting from warnings about the health risks of "the munchies" to panic over marijuana as a "gateway drug" — and the violence, gang activity and criminality it sows.

What’s happening in Washington and Colorado isn’t a shift so much as a formalization of what has long been a reality: If you’re white, you can do drugs with relative impunity. No one law or state initiative will be the nail in the coffin of America’s failed war on drugs — and sadly, black and Hispanic Americans will continue to get locked up while others are getting high.

According to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union, there were eight million marijuana arrests in the United States from 2001 to 2010. These arrests were anything but colourblind: Eighty-eight per cent were for possession, a crime for which black Americans are almost four times more likely to be arrested than whites. While white and black Americans use marijuana at roughly similar rates — though whites ages 18 to 25 consistently surpass their black peers — arrest rates are nowhere near comparable. As of 2005, according to the American Bar Association, African Americans represented 14 per cent of drug users (and of the population as a whole), yet accounted for 34 per cent of all drug arrests and 53 per cent of those sent to prison for a drug offence.

It is not a coincidence that marijuana has been decriminalized in Washington and Colorado, but not in Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Iowa, Pennsylvania, California, Indiana or Louisiana — the seven states with the highest rates of incarcerated black men. In parts of Louisiana, which arrests 13,000 people each year for marijuana possession, black people are 11 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana.

It’s not surprising that college campuses, bastions of white privilege, have been at the forefront of decriminalization efforts. In a 2007 study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, researchers found that marijuana use among college students had more than doubled from 1993 to 2005. The same study found that four per cent of college students smoke marijuana 20 times a month, yet the Drug Enforcement Agency has not conducted drug sweeps of fraternity houses, nor have stop-and-frisk tactics been deployed on college campuses.

We hope that we will be wrong and that recent legal shifts mark the end of a racially divided war on drugs. But while Colorado and Washington certainly aren’t the whitest states in the nation — Colorado is 14th and Washington 26th — history has shown that decriminalization, like the war on drugs itself, remains coloured by racism.

In 2009, Massachusetts decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana. While this resulted in a decline in overall arrests, racial disparities continued. And although New York passed a decriminalization bill in 1977 — making possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana punishable by a $100 fine for the first offence — the NYPD still arrested about 440,000 people from 2002 to 2012, with 85 per cent being black and Latino even though young whites use marijuana at higher rates.

So forgive us if we are not ready to celebrate the most recent moves to decriminalize marijuana. Decriminalization may lead to fewer arrests of African Americans and Latinos. But the consequences of past unjust arrests give us pause. And as state budgets are slashed and taxes are cut in Colorado and Washington, and throughout the country, decriminalization is tied to states’ desire to cash in on the marijuana market. It’s not about ending the war on drugs.

After 40 years, the war on drugs has locked up millions of African Americans and Latinos; it has destroyed families and communities. The decriminalization movement, and the acceptance of medical marijuana, do little to stop such damage.

If you listened to politicians, commentators and activists, you would think America has undergone a dramatic change in drug-control policy in a few weeks’ time that will usher in a new day for race, crime and punishment. We are unconvinced.

People with black and brown skin get very little leeway to experiment or self-medicate with drugs. When they do use marijuana, they’re much more likely to be viewed as criminal. For white America, being young and stupid, and having the ability to experiment with drugs and laugh about it later — as David Brooks, Bill Clinton, stop-and-frisk defender Michael Bloomberg and plenty of others have done — is the embodiment of privilege. Breaking the law is often easily erased with a breath mint, a high-priced lawyer, or just a nod and wink from the criminal justice system. The war on drugs has left white America relatively unscathed.

 

Stacey Patton is a senior enterprise reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education. David J. Leonard is an associate professor and chairman of the department of critical culture, gender and race studies at Washington State University.

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Shots ring out as police say armed threat "resolved"

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Jia Ping Lu practices tai chi in Assiniboine Park at the duck pond Thursday morning under the eye of a Canada goose  - See Bryksa 30 Day goose challenge Day 13- May 17, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • Goose sits in high grass near Marion Friday afternoon for cover -See Bryksa 30 Day goose challenge- Day 18 - May 25, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Will higher pork prices change your grocery-shopping habits?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google