THE BLOG
01/27/2015 10:49 am ET Updated Mar 27, 2015

Race, Morality, and Law: The Lingering Effects of the War on Drugs

Driven by the drug war, the marijuana issue is continually debated in local, state, and federal jurisdictions about its illegality and wide-spread impact on the wider society as a whole. It has been a long-standing topic of intense debate involving those in the legal community, medical professionals, police departments, district attorneys, as well as community activist groups, particularly with voices on both sides of the argument. Nonetheless, more recently, the marijuana issue has been gaining more communal traction, and to some extent, wide-spread political support about its potential legalization in the future.

The overall law's pedagogical purpose however has remained moderately consistent in its understanding of the law's intention and function in regulating such public and private activity. Law principally and properly seeks the common good. It functions as a moral teacher. It serves as a restraint and regulates ones behavior within the context of society. Its mission is to attempt to understand moral norms in an effort to transform society for the better.

Consequently, in light of the law's good intentions around a number of diverse issues, sometimes good intentions do not reflect the best outcomes for a given society; and thus laws must be redefined and reshaped depending upon societal norms, customs, shared expectations and adopted beliefs. Therefore in light of this fact, I will highlight one of the single most issues facing society today, which in turn, is largely responsible for what we now call, "The Prison-Industrial-Complex." This complex refers to the rapid expansion of the US prison population that ensnares hundreds of thousands of people each year.

A Brief History of the Drug War:

The war on drugs traces its origins back to around 1870. The first anti-opium laws during this era were directed specifically at Chinese Immigrants. The first anti-cocaine laws in the early 1900s, especially after the first census of 1890 where African Americans were included, were directed directly at black men. However, during the early 1900s in the Midwest and southwest in particular, enforcement was directed at Mexican migrants and Mexican Americans. Today, and ever since the 1960s onward, enforcement has been arguably targeted at black (African American) and brown (Latino) communities. Hence, black and brown communities are still subject to wildly disproportionate policing and sentencing practices.

In the 1960s, as drugs became symbols of youthful rebellion, social upheaval, and political dissent, the government halted scientific research to evaluate their medical safety and efficacy. In June 1971, President Nixon declared a "war on drugs." He dramatically increased the size and presence of federal drug control agencies, and pushed through measures such as mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants. Nixon temporarily placed marijuana in 'Schedule One', the most restrictive category of drugs, pending review by a commission he appointed led by Republican Pennsylvania Governor Raymond Shafer. In 1972, the commission unanimously recommended decriminalizing the possession and distribution of marijuana for personal use. Nixon ignored the report and rejected its recommendations.
Subsequently, between 1973 and 1977, however, eleven states decriminalized marijuana possession. In January 1977, President Jimmy Carter was inaugurated on a campaign platform that included marijuana decriminalization. In October 1977, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use.

Within just a few years, though, the tide had shifted. Proposals to decriminalize marijuana were abandoned as parents became increasingly concerned about high rates of teen marijuana use. Marijuana was ultimately caught up in a broader cultural backlash against the perceived permissiveness of the 1970s.

The sour repercussions stemming from the drug war seeped deeply into the administration of President Ronald Regan. The presidency of Ronald Reagan marked the start of a long period of skyrocketing rates of incarceration, largely because he waged war on drugs, particularly in poor communities of color and participated in discriminatory targeted enforcement. This longstanding discriminatory, targeted enforcement practice was continued way into the Clinton Administration onward and well into the Obama Administration with his Vice Presidential pick, Joe Biden, who once earmarked more than 500 million dollars to build more state and federal prisons; thus further sweeping an even higher number of poor people of color, namely black men into the prison system. The number of people behind bars for nonviolent drug law offenses increased from 50,000 in 1980 to over 400,000 by 1997. Today, that number is well-over 2.3 million--that mostly comprise of poor and destitute black/ brown men.As the record stands, the U.S. incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world.

The Reasons we should decriminalize the use of Marijuana Drugs:

According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report data, there were an estimated 1,214,462 violent crimes reported to police in 2012, a 0.7 percent increase. Most marijuana-related arrests were for possession of the drug. By mere possession, there was one marijuana arrest every 48 seconds in 2012. Including arrests for distribution, there was a pot-related arrest every 42 seconds, the same interval as in 2011.
Approximately 850,000 individuals are arrested each year for marijuana related offenses. In 2004, approximately 12.7% of state prisoners and 12.4% of federal prisoners were serving time for marijuana-related offenses. In 2013, those numbers nearly quadrupled. When one considers the general current strain on the justice system (which should be concerned with catching real criminals), and the enormous personal costs associated with being arrested and incarcerated, the price at both levels is difficult to overestimate. This exceeds the total number of arrests in 2012 for murder, non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, and car theft. Meanwhile, according to the FBI's Crime in the United States 2012 report, the national clearance rate for murder and non-negligent manslaughter was 64.8%, for forcible rape, the clearance rate was 41.2%, and for robbery the clearance rate was a shockingly low 28.7%.

In addition to people being locked away for non-heinous crimes against society and the enormous price tag taxpayers have to front out of pocket, one could make the assertion, and in my opinion, the single most important moral argument, in that our current criminal justice system is discriminatory and upholds longstanding policies of racism. This assertion can be backed by the fact that the way marijuana laws are enforced offers a crystal clear example of institutionalized and structural racism, especially when the "war on drugs" policy produce adverse effects for a particular group of individuals, namely blacks and poor minorities. For example, although African Americans use marijuana at about the same rate as the general population, they are three times more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts. In addition, minorities are much more likely to be prosecuted and spend a much longer period incarcerated for marijuana related offenses.

According to the ACLU website, blacks are over four and a half times as likely to be arrested for simple possession as whites, despite the fact that use rates among African Americans are about the same as whites. Similarly, blacks are five times as likely to be arrested over a Latino who uses the same amount of street drugs. It is important to note that this is not a regional disparity; disproportionate arrest rates are found in every single state throughout the United States.

As a result of this complex, criminal penalty following a conviction for possession of a small amount of marijuana can lead to a lifetime of harsh consequences. A conviction can result in denial of student financial aid and government housing benefits, employment, and professional licenses, and a whole range of related issues. Although more than 105 million adults have used marijuana, the discriminatory enforcement means these harsh collateral consequences disproportionately affect minorities, but more specifically blacks.

On the other hand, however, Marijuana has received much attention for having medicinal benefits, and currently medical marijuana is available in 16 states and DC. According to the 2012 report from the American Medical Association, medical cannabis has established effects in the treatment of nausea, vomiting, premenstrual syndrome, unintentional weight loss, insomnia, and lack of appetite as well as produces certain psychological benefits. Therefore, one could make the argument that Marijuana is less harmful than alcohol and produces less undesirable health risks than alcohol. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 37,000 annual U.S.deaths are attributed to alcohol use. This figure excludes accidents and homicides. The CDC does not even have a category for marijuana-induced deaths. Hundreds of people die in the U.S. each year due to alcohol overdoses, according to the CDC. Studies have also shown that alcohol use increases the likelihood of domestic abuse and sexual assaults and certain opportunistic infections and diseases; for instance, cirrhosis of the liver, kidney disease etc. Marijuana use has not been linked to an increase in either of these crimes or health risks. There has never been a recorded case of a fatal marijuana overdose.

More importantly, financial experts, key politicians, and some lobbyist estimate that the financial benefits of legalization would be approximately 10 to 16 billion dollars a year. For example, Egan and Miron (2007) estimated that $8 billion would be saved in prohibition enforcement, and legalization would yield tax revenue of $2 billion dollars if marijuana was taxed at the general merchandise rate and $8 billion if taxed at a rate comparable to alcohol and cigarettes. A related issue is that the flip side of the government's gain is the shift of monies away from career criminals. Marijuana's illegality makes foreign cultivation and smuggling to the United States extremely profitable, sending billions of dollars overseas in a nasty, criminal underground economy.

If we were to tackle this issue at home and reverse our current policies around the issue of incarceration, we can pour more money into our educational system and instead of building more prisons, we can hire, train, retain, and recruit more qualified teachers and students who will contribute much to the global economic marketplace through a myriad of tangible and material resources. We can begin to put people back to work and engineer a workforce second to none, and who can compete for the world's greatest resources. We can downsize our police force and render aid to those who are on the front lines defending our country against foreign invaders. And lastly, we can put these men back into the home to serve as examples to our children who so desperately needs it.

Herron K. Gaston is a graduate student at Yale University. He studies the intersection of ethics, religion, politics, and law. He is the founder and director of the Gaston Justice Coalition Group LLC, which is a faith-based, non-profit organization comprised of pastors, ministers, churches, educators, and community leaders whose mission is to address critical issues and reduce violence and incarceration particularly in inner-cities.