THE BLOG

The Politics of Cannabis and Color

07/10/2010 05:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Alice Huffman's explanation of the California NAACP's endorsement of Proposition 19, the state initiative calling for the regulated legalization and taxation of marijuana, was well reasoned and smartly put. But she was promptly pounced upon, smeared by a collection of out-of-touch, fear-mongering detractors, including "more than 20 African American religious and community leaders" headed by one Bishop Ron Allen.

Mr. Allen's statement was illogical, and insulting and condescending to the multitudes of African American civic leaders, including law enforcement officers and members of the clergy, who are working to end a drug war that has had devastating effects on communities of color.

Young black men have been hit particularly hard. As a new study by the Drug Policy Alliance points out, young blacks consume marijuana at rates lower than young whites. Yet in the 25 largest counties of California where blacks constitute 7 percent of the population, African American men are being arrested at double, triple, or even quadruple the rates for whites. This is not accidental.

Born of bigotry and sourced in fear, U.S. drug policy began with conveniently legalized discrimination against the Chinese, then Latinos, and finally African Americans.

That many of today's law enforcement officers deny overt racism in enforcing drug laws, that they claim they're simply responding to citizen complaints of street corner dealing and open-air drug markets, makes the practice no less ruinous to the lives of young black men.

As Huffman points out, ending the drug war -- or, more modestly, bringing a halt to the indisputable madness of marijuana prohibition -- is imperative if we are to help halt the institutionalized denial of civil rights and civil liberties in African American communities.

Yet, speaking as "President and CEO" of the "International Faith-Based Coalition," a pro-drug war organization that seems to have sprung up out of nowhere to combat Proposition 19, Bishop Allen addressed a news conference on the steps of the state capital. "Why would the NAACP advocate for blacks to stay high?" he said. "It's going to cause crime to go up," he said. "There will be more drug babies," he said. Huffman "must resign," he said.

Stop and think, Mr. Allen: Huffman was hardly urging blacks to "stay high," or even to pick up a single joint; marijuana legalization will cause crime to go down, not up; and there will be fewer drug babies.

How do we know this? History, science, and common sense. Between 1920 and 1933, alcohol prohibition produced an explosion of violent crime, drive-by shootings, overdose deaths (think bad bathtub gin), and obscene profits for bootleggers -- yesteryear's drug cartels and street dealers. It took only 13 years for Americans to come to their senses and repeal the Volstead Act. In so doing, we put the skids to an illicit industry whose monopolized commerce had guaranteed street violence. Alcohol was "re-legalized," its wholesaling and retailing "re-regulated." Taxes, once again, were collected. Crime went down.

And that feckless comment about "more drug babies"? Ponder this, Mr. Allen. If a parent chooses not to consume marijuana solely because it is illegal, is that really the kind of law-abiding, conscientious parent who, under a newly legalized system, would put his or her baby at risk?

The great majority of today's 25 million or so regular marijuana consumers don't drive stoned, beat their partners, rob convenience stores, or feed THC-laced brownies to their toddlers. They've simply chosen to consume an illegal drug that they know to be demonstrably safer and healthier than alcohol, with far fewer harmful effects than tobacco.

Of course, some consume too much marijuana. In Mr. Allen's words, they "stay high." But under a system of regulated legalization, these individuals would be treated as medical patients, not law-breakers. With no criminal stigma attached they'd be more likely to seek help for their affliction. And, under a public health vs. criminal justice orientation, they would be more likely to get that help.

Why continue to criminalize behavior we know, scientifically, to be safer than today's legal, commercially marketed alcohol and tobacco products? Why force millions of Americans to rely on a distribution system that cannot guarantee quality, a product free of dangerous additives? Why feed the self-perpetuating violence and greed machine that is the current "cartel" and street-gang system? Why suffer year after year the loss of tax revenues (pot's the country's top cash crop) that the government could be using to fund public safety, abuse prevention, education, and drug treatment?

Fortunately, Huffman, a tough woman with no quit in her when it comes to justice, has made it clear she's not backing off. She's received strong support from other notable black leaders, including a former chairman of the national NAACP. Julian Bond told her that, "...you and the California NAACP are as right as you can be. The war on drugs is an absolute failure. It targets black people."

The black community has from the beginning suffered far more drug war casualties than any other segment of our society. Who, ultimately, will capture the larger African American community's imagination when it comes to future drug policy? An angry, ill-informed man of the cloth whose "lock 'em and throw away the key" strategy promises to make matters worse?

Or Alice Huffman, whose spirit of logic, compassion and courage promises to rally support for the passage of Proposition 19?

Legalized marijuana, taxed, regulated, and controlled, would go a long way toward ending a uniquely destructive form of American racism and discrimination.