The war on drugs has been a war on communities of color, plain and simple. Some people realize that it is time to end a war that has devastated so many people, so many families, and has accomplished little to deal with actual drug addiction. A criminal justice model for drug use must give way to a public health model and a regulatory framework.
The California NAACP, with the support of law enforcement professionals, realizes that the state's battle for legalization of marijuana is part of the war against the war on drugs. And this new war is part of the fight for civil rights. Yes, pot legalization is a civil rights issue.
California NAACP president Alice Huffman is catching a great deal of flack for supporting Proposition 19, the ballot initiative that would legalize, regulate and tax the drug in her state. In an official statement, the California NAACP mentioned a recent study by the Drug Policy Institute that clearly shows marijuana laws are unfairly applied to young African Americans. Although young blacks use marijuana at lower rates than their white counterparts, they are arrested for marijuana possession at double, triple or even quadruple the rate of whites. In Los Angeles County, blacks are 10 percent of the population, but 30 percent of the weed-related arrests.
"While marijuana has been decriminalized over the years, there are staggering statistics that African Americans in every county of California have conviction rates far and above those of whites. It is time for the War on Drugs to focus on drug lords and cartels," the NAACP said. "We need to give our young African American citizens a chance at opportunity and not an arrest record that dooms their chances of success. The money spent on these minor drug arrests could be better used on education, health services, and counseling."
Supporting the NAACP is Neill Franklin, a retired black narcotics cop who now leads Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), an international group of pro-legalization cops, judges and prosecutors. These are the people who have been on the frontlines of the war on drugs. And war can leave you weary and disillusioned, particularly when you don't like what you witnessed in that war. "As a member of the NAACP, and as a former police officer who waged the 'war on drugs' for three decades, I can tell you that it is long past time to change our failed marijuana laws," Franklin said. "Like Alice and the other good folks at the NAACP, I'm tired of seeing young black men and women funneled through the revolving doors of the criminal justice system, all in the name of a 'war on marijuana' that actually does nothing to reduce its use." Franklin also believes that continuing the failed policy of prohibition bears obscene human and fiscal costs, and California voters need to know that.
Franklin and LEAP are standing with Huffman on an important policy issue, but they are also supporting the embattled California NAACP chief against unwarranted attacks from anti-reform groups. First and foremost among the forces out to get Alice Huffman is the conservative black clergy, led by Bishop Ron Allen of the International Faith Based Coalition (IFBC).
The IFBC website raises more questions than it answers about the organization, which purports to represent a coalition of more than 4,100 congregations. That's quite a claim, and quite unsubstantiated for that matter. The group describes itself as "an all-denominational, multi-racial, non-partisan non-political coalition of churches, ministries, community based organizations, governmental agencies, businesses and concerned individuals." Yet, this "non-partisan, non-political" group lists among its partners the California Republican Party and GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman (in fairness it also lists U.S. drug czar R. Gil Kerlikowske).
And curiously, IFBC claims the NAACP as a partner, even as it simultaneously urges people on its website not to support the NAACP. "I would like to commend Rev. Ron Allen in his leadership against this evil Prompt 19 [sic]," said Rev. Anthony Evans of the National Black Church Initiative, on the IFBC website. Rev. Evans, by the way, has taken a prominent role against same-sex marriage in Washington. DC., and declared the black church will no longer allow African-American politicians to promote policies (i.e., gay marriage) that hurt the black church. It is uncertain how same-sex marriage will hurt the black church, but oh well.
Of Huffman and "Prompt" 19, Rev. Evans asserted "The NAACP is becoming an enemy to the Black family... Now they are allowing Ms. Huffman to unleash her unethical practices by supporting drugs that have ravished the African American community over the past 30 years." He continues: "I am authorizing all of our churches in the West Faith Command not to [sic] give a damn dime to the NAACP and not allow their congregation to be used for any of the NAACP meetings. There is no way that the Black Church will permit this immoral act as it will only further the devastation of the African American community."
Conservative preachers such as Rev. Evans and Bishop Allen are missing the whole point about the war on drugs, or perhaps this is intentional. Has drug addiction destroyed lives? Yes, to be certain, but so too have the consumption of alcohol and tobacco -- and these substances are not criminalized, but are regulated and treated as health concerns. Detractors insist Alice Huffman and the NAACP are an enemy of black America for supporting the legalization of marijuana. Yet, how can the prohibitionists claim to act in the interests of the black community when they support the perpetuation of a failed drug war that has placed countless black, brown and poor white folk behind bars, wasting their lives away in a cell, separated from their children, with their communities depleted of resources, hollowed out and disenfranchised?
The California NAACP is under fire when it should be applauded for its courage. Alice Huffman is carrying out the mission of her organization, ensuring that it protects civil rights and remains relevant in changing times. Should we expect her to do less?
David A. Love is the Executive Editor of BlackCommentator.com, and a contributor to The Progressive Media Project and theGrio. He is based in Philadelphia, and is a graduate of Harvard College and the University of Pennsylvania Law School. His blog is davidalove.com.