Legislators Say Marijuana Reform Could Ease Tensions In Baltimore And Beyond

04/29/2015 04:26 pm ET | Updated Apr 29, 2015

WASHINGTON -- Multiple members of Congress suggested Wednesday that the misguided policies of the drug war have played a central role in brewing tensions between police and residents in Baltimore that exploded into chaos after the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray.

At a press conference for a new bill that would ensure legal marijuana businesses have access to the banking system, the lawmakers advocated for changes to the nation's drug policies. Reforms would start to address the racial disparities in law enforcement and mass incarceration that the decades-long war on drugs has produced in the U.S., they said.

"Right now when you see all of this disturbance in our inner cities, a lot of that has to do with frustration that's been a problem when police end up doing what -- having to search people to see if they can find some joint in their pocket, a little piece of weed, in order to ruin their life and put them in jail," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.). "That doesn't happen a lot in Orange County, but I know it happens in the inner city."

Rohrabacher was joined by other members, including Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), Denny Heck (D-Wash.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.). Perlmutter and Heck introduced the bill on Wednesday, along with 16 other legislators.

There is approximately one marijuana arrest every minute in the U.S., according to the most recent FBI crime data. And while marijuana arrests are down overall, nearly 700,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in 2013 -- a figure totaling about half of all drug arrests in the nation. Despite similar rates of marijuana use, blacks and Latinos are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites nationwide, according to a recent American Civil Liberties Union study. In some parts of the country, blacks are seven or eight times more likely to be arrested for simple possession.

Gray suffered a spinal cord injury in police custody and died after slipping into a coma, setting off protests and riots in Baltimore. Officials said he ran from police, who then chased him and put him under arrest for carrying a switchblade knife. Grey’s arrest record shows that he had frequent encounters with police and multiple charges of possession or intent to distribute unspecified drugs, as well as possession of marijuana.

Neill Franklin, a 34-year veteran of both the Maryland state police and the Baltimore Police Department who now serves as executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, told HuffPost that Gray's rap sheet tells an all-too-familiar story. LEAP is a group of former cops, prosecutors and judges working to end the war on drugs.

"The drug war is central to what's going on in Baltimore," Franklin said. "We have tasked our police officers with an impossible job of enforcing these drug laws in our country. But it's not just impossible, it's disheartening. It's a job where there is no progress."

The illicit drug trade, Franklin said, not only creates a very dangerous environment for police officers, it also drives a wedge between police and their communities.

"Communities just get tired," Franklin said. "If you're not being stopped and searched by police, you are seeing it happen to a friend or family member. Then every once in a while we end up with a Freddie Gray."

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) said after the press conference that "highly discriminatory" patterns of enforcement are a major problem in inner cities.

"For lower-income minority young men, an arrest or incarceration can be really devastating," he said. "If you're a middle-class white kid, you probably wouldn't have been arrested in the first place, and your parents can get you off. A young minority male is more likely to have this wreck their lives. Lose qualification for student loans; if they live in public housing, they may not be able to live with their family. And this compounds."

The U.S. has the largest prison population in the world -- with just 5 percent of the global population, it houses 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Harsh and lengthy sentences for drug crimes have dramatically increased that figure in recent decades. According to a study from the Sentencing Project, in 1980 there were approximately 40,000 drug offenders held in U.S. prisons, but by 2011 that number skyrocketed to more than 500,000. Roughly two-thirds of this group are people of color, according to the Sentencing Project.

Legalizing marijuana wouldn't fix everything, said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), who authored a bill to make the drug legal Arizona during his time in the state legislature. But it could remove the point of tension over disproportionate enforcement of marijuana laws, he said.

"I do believe it would help," he told HuffPost Wednesday at a separate event. "It doesn't solve the problems that inner-city youth have, because that's long-term problems dealing with unemployment, institutional racism, all of those kind of things. But it does help, I think, negate at least a little and also bring down the tension between police officers and young men."

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