By Doug Porter
More than four decades ago (1972) California’s Proposition 19, which would have decriminalized marijuana possession, was resoundingly defeated by a 2 to 1 margin.
In the years since then, hodgepodge of voter approved propositions, legislative initiatives and executive orders have sought to lessen or eliminate criminal penalties for use and possession of pot. They haven’t worked as intended. Overzealous prosecutors and law enforcers have continued to put the hammer down, even as juries have increasingly refused to play along.
The beginning of end for pot prohibition in California came yesterday, as the Marijuana Policy Project filed paperwork registering a a campaign committee to start accepting and spending contributions for a pot legalization initiative on the November 2016 state ballot.
California, long the national leader in illegal marijuana production and home to a thriving, largely unregulated medical marijuana industry, is one of the 21 other states that currently allow marijuana use only for medical reasons. The drug remains illegal under federal law.
“Marijuana prohibition has had an enormously detrimental impact on California communities. It’s been ineffective, wasteful and counterproductive. It’s time for a more responsible approach,” Marijuana Policy Project Executive Director Rob Kampia said. “Regulating and taxing marijuana similarly to alcohol just makes sense.”
How We Got Here
California was ahead of the curve in the war on marijuana, enacting increasingly harsh legislation starting in 1913 and ending up with mandatory life sentences for repeat offenders in 1954.
Despite the opposition of the American Medical Association, the Feds finally caught up with the criminalization craze in 1937.
Here’s Maia Szalavitz on the “legal” foundation behind criminalization:
The truth is that our perceptions of marijuana—and in fact all of our drug laws—are based on early 20th century racism and “science” circa the Jim Crow era. In the early decades of the 20th century, the drug was linked to Mexican immigrants and black jazzmen, who were seen as potentially dangerous.
Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (an early predecessor of the DEA), was one of the driving forces behind pot prohibition. He pushed it for explicitly racist reasons, saying, “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men,” and:
“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”
The main reason to prohibit marijuana, he said was “its effect on the degenerate races.” (And god forbid women should sleep with entertainers!)
Modern Day Racism
Having started out based in racism, drug laws (and marijuana is the popular drug) have continued following that path into the 21st century.
Here’s where we are today, when popular attitudes towards what was once known as the killer weed and racial discrimination have supposedly relaxed, from the Marijuana Arrest Research Project:
U.S. government studies consistently find that young whites use marijuana at higher rates than young blacks or Latinos. Yet, in large cities and counties throughout the United States, young blacks and Latinos are arrested and jailed for marijuana possession at much higher rates than young whites.
In New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, police arrest blacks for marijuana possession at seven times the rate of whites. Usually, the people arrested were not smoking in public. Police typically found the small amount of marijuana when they stopped, frisked, and searched the young people, often in their own neighborhoods.
Who’s behind this? Are there really wannabe Klansmen lurking in just about every law enforcement agency?
From The Nation:
The national crusade against marijuana can be traced to the early 1990s, as the “war on drugs” shifted its focus from crack cocaine to marijuana under Bill Clinton. Since then, Congress has regularly allocated billions in federal funding to local police and prosecutors under the Justice Department’s anti-drug and police programs. Grantees often report their drug possession arrests as evidence of their accomplishments using these funds—and as proof that they should receive more. Federal money has thus subsidized the arrests of millions of young people for possessing marijuana, disproportionately young people of color. Prominent blue-state Democrats like Joe Biden, Dianne Feinstein, Charles Schumer, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have strongly supported these grants over the years; in 2009, the fiscal stimulus actually doubled the anti-drug funding for local law enforcement agencies.
More than many people realize, prominent liberals have long been among law enforcement’s most important political allies. A substantial power bloc of “drug war liberals”—or what might more broadly be termed “law-and-order liberals”—has played a major role in sustaining this drug war policing. Police departments depend on liberal Democrats to defend their funding and policy needs. Liberals in Congress and the White House, in turn, depend on police lobbying groups to support important legislation, such as their endorsement of immigration and gun reforms. And politicians at all levels of government gain credibility with many voters by having top police officials vouch for their steadfastness in “fighting crime.”
With this federal support and encouragement, arrests for marijuana possession climbed from a crack-era low of 260,000 in 1990, to 500,000 in 1995, to 640,000 in 2000, to 690,000 in 2005, to 750,000 in 2010. The ACLU calculates that these arrests have cost taxpayers at least $3.6 billion a year. And there is absolutely no evidence that they reduce serious or violent crime—or even drug use.
Does that mean all those Blue State liberals are racist? Again, nope. (Well, not overtly)
Drug Busts Are Easy, Fighting Crime is Hard
But dope laws do represent the path of least resistance for politicians, prosecutors and police to get ahead. Enforcement is easy: just drive around neighborhoods where people of color live and randomly search young people. Prosecution is (or used to be) easy: older mostly white juries are afraid of the young “hooligans” caught up in the legal system. And politicians in general and Democrats in particular can’t afford to be cast as soft on crime.
So laws based on the “scientific doctrines” of the early 20th century (which also included eugenics) about “controlling the impulses of lessor beings” are still in play. As a society we’ve conveniently forgotten the ideology of those who wrote those laws.
If you stop and think about it for minute, what we’re really talking about is the “fear of the other,” that primal instinct once needed to protect the species. Fundamentalist theology (just about all faiths), along with the basic political strategy of divide and conquer have enshrined people of color as the imagery to drive that fear.
What we have in the arena drug enforcement amounts to what has been called “racism without racists.” As the above quoted Nation article says, “No individual officers need harbor racial animosity for the criminal justice system to produce jails and courts filled with black and brown faces. But the absence of hostile intent does not absolve policy-makers and law enforcement officials from responsibility or blame.”
How Bad is it?
California legalized marijuana for medical use in 1996. That’s eighteen years ago. And here’s a story from Fox5 San Diego earlier this week:
The first legally licensed medical marijuana dispensary in San Diego County is now open for business in El Cajon.
Located in a largely industrial area on the east side of Gillespie Field, there are no schools in the vicinity. State and county ordinances prohibit marijuana dispensaries near schools.
It is called Outliers Collective and it represents the new face of the pot industry: clean cut business people with state-of-the-art equipment and technology, and serious goals for the future.
Eighteen years to get to this point? You’ve got to be kidding? Nope.
Here’s a story from today’s UT-San Diego about a couple from Ramona who were busted and then cleared for growing pot for their own medical use. They’re suing Sheriff Bill Gore, San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman and various law enforcement officers claiming excessive force was used during a “paramilitary-style raid” on their home.
The Littles say they were growing medical marijuana under the state’s legal guidelines. Deborah, 60, has suffered from HIV for more than 20 years and is a cervical cancer survivor, while her husband, 65, deals with neuropathy and depression, the couple has told U-T San Diego in past interviews.
Deputy Matt Stevens wrote in an affidavit supporting a search warrant that he’d spotted “well over 100 growing marijuana plants” on the property while doing surveillance from a helicopter, according to the complaint. The actual amount was heavily debated when officers on the Narcotics Task Force raided the property later.
The officers seized 29 plants, 22 branches drying on the ground, and dozens of bags and jars containing buds, according to evidence at trial. Investigators initially billed the take as 640 pounds of marijuana. The figure used at trial was revised to 116 pounds.
Why Legalization Will Pass Now
I’m convinced that the 2016 marijuana initiative –which I’m assuming will resemble efforts in Colorado and Washington–will pass handily.
Despite what they’d like to believe, marijuana smokers are a minority group. Given that they generally skew younger as a demographic, it’s safe to say that voter participation within that group is less than what it should be.
So it won’t be pot smokers who vote in legalization. It will be the rest of us. (Guess I just blew my cover there, huh?)
We’ll vote for legalization because it no longer makes sense to spend the resources required to enforce those laws. We’ll vote for legalization because we know people who smoke pot and are kinda normal otherwise. We’ll vote for legalization because all those bad things we’ve been told over the years about pot just haven’t turned out to be true.
And, although many people won’t realize it, we’ll be voting against Jim Crow.
In Colorado, where they’ve got nine months of legalization under their belt, things have worked out pretty well. Violent crime is down. Tax revenues, while not as plentiful as promised by pot industry boosters, are flowing into the Treasury. The state government estimates they’ll save as much as $40 million annually by way of reducing criminal penalties.
Voters approved legalization in 2012 by a margin of 10 percent, and a March poll found Colorado voters now favor it by a 22-point margin. Sixty one percent believe it has made the state better or not changed it.
California on the High Road
From the Washington Post coverage of yesterday’s announcement of a November 2016 legalization initiative in California:
In 1996, the state became the first in the nation to legalize medical marijuana. The Field Poll, which specializes in public opinion research in the state, found last December that 55 percent of California voters support the legalization of the drug, the first time a clear majority supported such a policy since it began asking about the issue in 1969.
The current estimate being bandied around about the tax revenue potential from sales of legalized pot is just over half a billion dollars annually.
In my perfect world, the State legislature would dedicate a big portion of that money for actual research on the effects of all drugs. Human beings have getting been high for a long, long time. Maybe it’s time we understood that motivation.
I also suspect that there are positive aspects to altering the brain’s chemistry to be gained through research. As a culture we’ve been undergoing a massive national field test in altering consciousness through a massive number of prescriptions given for anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses. Perhaps it’s time that somebody other than the drug companies got involved in this research in a big way.
On This Day: 1789 – The first Congress adopted 12 amendments to the Constitution. Ten of the amendments became the Bill of Rights. 1891 – Two African-American sharecroppers were killed during an ultimately unsuccessful cotton-pickers’ strike in Lee County, Ark. By the time the strike had been suppressed, 15 African-Americans had died and another six had been imprisoned. A white plantation manager was killed as well. 1983 – A Soviet military officer, Stanislav Petrov, averted a potential worldwide nuclear war. He declared a false alarm after a U.S. attack was detected by a Soviet early warning system. It was later discovered the alarms had been set off when the satellite warning system mistakenly interpreted sunlight reflections off clouds as the presence of enemy missiles.
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