President Obama again cast an ugly glare on the race-tainted drug laws in a recent interview and in reports from the White House. He specifically finger pointed marijuana. Virtually all medical professionals have repeatedly said that marijuana use is no more damaging than alcohol, and so did Obama. If anything, judging from the thousands of family break ups, the mountainous carnage from alcohol related accidents and physical deaths from liquor addiction, marijuana use is far safer than alcohol.
But marijuana, as with the wildly disparate racially hammering of minorities with cocaine drug busts, has also been yet another weapon in the ruthless, relentless and naked drug war on minorities, especially African-Americans. The difference is that the gaping racial disparities in crack cocaine prosecutions and sentencing have gotten massive public attention, White House and legislative action to close the legal gap. Marijuana, by contrast, has flown far under the public and lawmaker's radar scope.
But the racial war that has been blatantly evident in the drug war is just as, if not more blatant, in who's arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced for marijuana use and sale. Take two states, Minnesota and Iowa. Minorities and especially blacks make up a relatively tiny overall percentage of residents of these two states. Yet blacks were eight times more likely to be arrested than whites. An ACLU study released last June found that in nearly every county in the nation the arrest rate for marijuana possession among blacks was at least four times higher than that for whites. Even worse the big gaping disparities in arrest numbers for blacks and whites comes at a time when public attitudes have radically softened on both personal and medicinal marijuana use. Many states and locales have drastically decriminalized marijuana possession, and two states have legalized its use, and other states are poised to vote on legalization. Even worse, the huge race tinged arrest numbers come at a time when the incidences of nearly every other type of crime has plummeted.
The reasons aren't hard to find. The near institution of open and covert stop and frisk laws that target minorities, incentives to pad arrest numbers to insure greater federal funding and to bolster the perceived crime fighting stature of police agencies, and the ease and cheapness of focusing on low level crimes are major reasons for the continued war on minorities for marijuana use.
Then there are the public attitudes toward black and white drug offenders. The top-heavy drug use by young whites has never stirred any public outcry for mass arrests, prosecutions, and tough prison sentences for them, many of whom deal drugs that are directly linked to serious crime and violence. Whites unlucky enough to get popped for drug possession are treated with compassion, prayer sessions, expensive psychiatric counseling, treatment and rehab programs, and drug diversion programs. And they should be. But so should those blacks and other non-whites victimized by discriminatory drug laws.
A frank admission that the laws are biased and unfair, and have not done much to combat the drug plague, would be an admission of failure. It could ignite a real soul-searching over whether all the billions of dollars that have been squandered in the failed and flawed drug war -- the lives ruined by it, and the families torn apart by the rigid and unequal enforcement of the laws -- has really accomplished anything.
This might call into question why people use and abuse drugs in the first place -- and if it is really the government's business to turn the legal screws on some drug users while turning a blind eye to others?
The greatest fallout from the nation's failed drug policy and that certainly includes racially skewed marijuana arrests is that it is a double-edged sword. On the one hand it further embeds the widespread notion that the drug problem is exclusively a black problem. This makes it easy for on-the-make politicians to grab votes, garner press attention, and balloon state prison budgets to jail more black offenders, while continuing to feed the illusion that we are winning the drug war. On the other, the easing up of marijuana arrests and prosecutions of whites permits much of the public and lawmakers to delude themselves that the nation has become much more prudent and enlightened in how it views the drug fight.
In his interview Obama was blunt, "We should not be locking up kids or individuals for long stretches of jail time when those writing the laws have probably done the same thing." Obama certainly could testify to that since he has frankly admitted his use of drugs in his youthful days. This frank admission and the realization that more prisons, the hiring and maintaining of waves of corrections officers, and the bloating state budgets in the process, not to mention political pandering is a lose lose for the nation. The biggest loser of all with the nation's disastrously failed and flawed drug war, is minorities and especially blacks. Marijuana is no different.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent MSNBC contributor. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.