Police arrest blacks at much higher rates than whites for marijuana possession
But some blacks are uncomfortable with legalization
By Frederick H. Lowe
The Congressional Black Caucus announced on Friday its support of decriminalization of marijuana, the centerpiece of the nation’s war on drugs that landed thousands of black men and women in prison until states began legalizing it for recreational use when it was openly being used by whites.
The 43-member caucus also said it supports expunging criminal records of individuals arrested for possession of small amounts of the drug.
“Some of the same folks who told African Americans ‘three strikes and you’re out’ when it came to marijuana use and distribution, are now decriminalizing the drug and making a profit off of it,” said U.S. Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, chair of the CBC.
The Congressional Black Caucus announced its position days after Cyrus Vance, Jr., the District Attorney for Manhattan, N.Y., said his office would decline to prosecute marijuana possession and smoking cases. The district attorney’s office said the new policy is expected to reduce marijuana prosecutions from 5,000 a year to approximately 200.
New York’s decision follows Seattle’s in which the district attorney and the mayor announced in early May plans to vacate convictions and dismiss charges for marijuana possession for men and women prosecuted by law enforcement from 1997 to 2010.
Washington State and Colorado legalized marijuana for recreational use in 2012.
On the same day the Congressional Black Caucus announced its position, President Donald Trump said he would support ending a federal ban on marijuana, putting him at odds with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, longtime opponent of marijuana possession. Sessions said he did not like members of the Klu Klux Klan because they smoked marijuana.
The use, sale, and possession of all forms of cannabis in the United States is illegal under federal law. It was classed as a Schedule I drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Under President Barack Obama, states were given leeway in enforcing laws against marijuana.
U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D., N.J.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, has introduced legislation that would remove marijuana from the list of controlled substances, making pot legal at the federal level.
Certain episodes of “Parts Unknown” hosted by celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain also contributed to the changing attitude about marijuana. Bourdain, a former heroin addict, took his television show, “Parts Unknown,” to parts of almost all white New England to show whites of all ages smoking marijuana and using harder drugs like heroin. (Bourdain was found dead June 8th of an apparent suicide.)
Maine Governor Paul LePage charged, however, that blacks from New York were bringing drugs into the state.
Before Bourdain, many people were led to believe through the news media, feature films and law enforcement that marijuana use was a problem only among blacks.
The way in which marijuana offenses were prosecuted convinced many people to think that way.
In 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union published “The War on Marijuana in Black and White: Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests,” which reported that between 2001 and 2010 there 8 million marijuana arrests. The study also reported that a black person is 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person although blacks and whites use marijuana at similar rates.
The report concludes that the war on marijuana, like the larger war on drugs, which is universally regarded as a failure, has had a staggeringly disproportionate impact on African Americans.
The CBC reports that 40 percent of federally convicted drug offenders are black and 12 percent of drug offenders in the prison population are there for marijuana offenses. The CBC also noted that 14 percent of drug offenders’ population is African American.
Decriminalization of marijuana is not a slam dunk in the black community. In his book “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America,” author James Forman Jr. wrote that some blacks opposed legalization because they saw it as tantamount to giving up on black youth.
The CBC supports rescheduling marijuana from a Schedule 1 controlled substance. In addition, the CBC members want research conducted on the long-term health effects of marijuana. Some early research suggests that heavy marijuana users are at greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease later in life.
Further, the organization wants money spent on the war on drugs allocated instead to rebuild the nation’s black neighborhoods.