April 20th is a special day for millions of people around the world, the unofficial "holiday" for marijuana smokers.
Many people mark April 20th, especially at 4:20 pm, with a toke. Some people will mark the day and the occasion with close friends. Others, in cities like Santa Cruz or Boulder, will be part of gatherings of thousands of people to celebrate the occasion. Both the intimate and mass gatherings are fun. It is special to be with a small group smoking a joint: the laughing, discussing, playing and chilling. It is also exhilarating being with thousands of others, all smoking, usually at a beautiful outdoor spot, often with some music.
On 4/20, in certain towns there is an open truce. The police allow the 4/20 gatherings to happen and are reluctant to arrest people. It is worth noting that at these mass gatherings of hundreds or thousands of people smoking marijuana, there is none of the rowdiness or violence that we often see at alcohol-fueled gatherings.
In addition to the good times, 4/20 is also a time where many people feel free to be open about their marijuana use. There is still stigma and real fear that you may get arrested or lose your job for smoking marijuana. The power-in-numbers, celebratory feel of 4/20 allows people to enjoy their marijuana in the open and with friends and see that there are more of us than we realize.
This is significant because many marijuana smokers don't feel comfortable admitting to the world that they use marijuana -- and this is one reason why marijuana is still illegal and almost a million people get arrested for it every year.
While I appreciate the good times on 4/20 as much as the next toker, I would like to put out a challenge: We need YOU to help end marijuana prohibition.
While many people associate marijuana with fun times, it also happens to be at the epicenter of a catastrophic war on drugs that is destroying as many lives as ever. If the current rate holds, more than 760,000 people in the U.S. will be arrested for just possessing a small amount of marijuana in 2011 -- twice the amount of marijuana possession arrests as in the 1980s. Once you're arrested, even for just a small amount of marijuana, you can lose much more than just your freedom -- you can lose your job, financial aid, housing, and even custody of your children.
Sometimes it might feel like marijuana is already legal -- but it isn't, especially if you're black or Latino. Nationally, in virtually every town and city, marijuana arrests reveal stark racial disparities. In 2010, 86 percent of those charged for marijuana possession in New York were black or Latino, even though these groups represent only about half of the city's population. Is this because blacks and Latinos are more likely to use or sell drugs? Not at all -- contrary to myths perpetuated in the media, the government's own data shows that white people are just as likely to use or sell marijuana as black or Latino people. Marijuana use doesn't discriminate, but our marijuana policies do.
In addition to the lives harmed by arrests and incarceration, there are enormous economic costs. The war on drugs costs the government at least $51 billion every year at the state and federal level. And that's not counting costs at the local level. For instance, according to a recent DPA report, New York City alone spent $75 million dollars arresting more than 50,000 people for marijuana possession in 2010.
The harms of marijuana prohibition are even more devastating to our neighbors to the South. In Mexico, more than 37,000 people have been killed since President Calderon declared war on the drug cartels, who make about half their profits in the marijuana business. It is not marijuana itself that causes violence on U.S. streets or the bloody war in Mexico -- it is the policy of marijuana prohibition.
This June will mark the 40th anniversary of Richard Nixon launching the war on drugs. The Drug Policy Alliance will be teaming up with organizations across the country to protest this disgraceful anniversary in cities and towns across the country.
I hope everyone has a good time on 4/20. And I hope you join the movement to end marijuana prohibition. This war on marijuana -- and the people who use it -- needs to end!
Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance