THE BLOG
11/04/2014 10:27 am ET Updated Jan 04, 2015

Yes on 71: A Moral Case for Legalizing Marijuana

On November 4, voters in Washington, D.C. will go to the polls to choose our next mayor, several councilmembers, a slew of local officials, and our path forward on one of the more pressing human rights issues of our day: the legalization of marijuana. Known as "Initiative 71," the ballot referendum gives D.C. voters the chance to liberate ourselves from a racist, oppressive, and costly federal policy that has needlessly incarcerated too many of our residents, and unjustly jeopardized too many of our educational, employment, and financial prospects for the rest of our lives.

I encourage all D.C. voters to vote yes on Initiative 71. Here's why.

U.S. Marijuana Prohibition Is Recent and Racist

The criminalization of marijuana is relatively new in the United States, and deeply tied to some of most shameful moments in our country's history. From the 1600s into the 1890s, the U.S. government encouraged and incentivized the production of hemp -- the plant from which marijuana is derived.

In the early 1900s, Mexican immigrants reportedly introduced recreational marijuana use to the United States. After the Mexican Revolution of 1910, the presence of Mexican immigrants in the United States surged. And though President Abraham Lincoln officially signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the post-slavery system of convict leasing, frequently more violent and inhumane than the system that preceded it, ensured that black Americans continued to be brutally exploited for unpaid labor and profit, until the United States formally prohibited the practice in response to embarrassing propaganda campaigns by the Axis powers in the early years of World War II.

Notably, in an era where the United States encountered unprecedented levels of Mexican immigration, and arguably the first true liberation of black Americans in its history, the legal fight against marijuana -- and the criminalization of its consumers -- began in earnest. During the 1930's, the height of eugenics, dubious but nevertheless influential research linked so-called "racially inferior communities," criminality, and marijuana use. By 1931, 29 states had outlawed marijuana. The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was the first piece of federal legislation to effectively criminalize the drug, restricting marijuana possession to individuals who paid excise taxes and who were only permitted a limited number of authorized medical and industry uses.

The Civil Rights era brought in a new and harsher wave of marijuana restrictions. As black Americans struggled and died for equal rights to public school access and voting representation, the country that had oppressed them for centuries passed law after law making marijuana possession a crime worthy of imprisonment and a lifetime of limited citizenship rights.

Between 1951 and 1956, the United States enacted federal laws requiring mandatory sentencing for marijuana possession. Richard Nixon, who rose to the presidency by embracing the "Southern Strategy," introduced the "war on drugs" concept in 1971, and established the Drug Enforcement Administration in 1973. And Ronald Reagan, who counted among his advisors the infamous Lee Atwater -- outspoken champion of using coded racist language to win elections in a more linguistically gentile post-Civil Rights Act era -- signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act into law in 1986, instituting mandatory sentences for drug-related crimes. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush -- whose campaign had been managed by none other than Lee Atwater -- launched in a presidential address the more forceful, multi-billion dollar, modern incarnation of the "War on Drugs."

We're Paying in Blood: The Staggering Costs of Marijuana Prohibition

The prohibition of marijuana in the United States may have happened only recently, but its consequences have been swift and dire. The Sentencing Project reported last year that one in three black males can expect to go to jail in their lifetimes. Given that felons are often stripped of their voting rights even after they have served out their sentences, and given the seemingly unstoppable expansion of carcerality plaguing our nation, the number of disenfranchised felons in the United States grew from 1.17 million in 1976 to 5.85 million by 2010, and at a rate of 500 percent since 1980. In some Southern states, including Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia, the consequences of harsh sentencing policies, the War on Drugs, and life-long post-imprisonment voting restrictions, mean that one in five black Americans is prevented outright from going to the polls on election day ever again.

Today, the United States has the highest imprisonment rate of any country, including North Korea, China, and Iran, in the world. And in our modern era of mass incarceration, as civil rights lawyer and acclaimed scholar Michelle Alexander documented in her book, "The New Jim Crow," there are currently more black American men behind bars in the United States than there were enslaved in 1850.

Internationally, it is unusual -- if not virtually unheard of -- to lock people in cages for non-violent drug offenses. And yet the United States does this with prolific and alarming regularity. In 2012, some 1.5 million people -- a population greater than those residing in about 10 states -- were arrested on non-violent drug charges. Of those, 749,825 were for marijuana law violations, and 658,231 were for marijuana possession only. Considering that our last three U.S. presidents admit to having smoked marijuana, it boggles the mind that the country whose drug policies they determine continues to cage marijuana users on such a massive scale.

Tragically, once convicted on marijuana charges, a U.S. citizen's capacity to improve his or her life circumstances is forever imperiled. What follows are a partial list of restrictions that, depending on which state one is lucky or unlucky enough to be arrested in, an American can expect to face -- into perpetuity -- even after he or she has served out any time in prison associated with marijuana possession or sales: ineligibility for adoption or foster parenting, ineligibility for "food stamps" or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families; legal discrimination in hiring and ineligibility for professional licensing programs; ineligibility for federal student loans and financial aid; revocation of driver's licenses; and, as noted above, outright prohibitions on voting.

In short, without outside sources of wealth, an American convicted for marijuana possession can be legally prohibited from working, going to college, receiving welfare, or voting for the rest of his or her life. By policy design, the United States is effectively erasing the humanity and citizenship of hundreds of thousands of Americans, year after year after year.

Moreover, American marijuana prohibition policies have lethal consequences even beyond our country's borders. Mexico, the United States' biggest marijuana supplier, has been particularly devastated by the War on Drugs.

Human Rights Watch reports that, from 2006 to 2012, 60,000 deaths in Mexico were directly attributable to the War on Drugs and the gang violence that inevitably occurs when the sale of a highly popular commodity -- in this case, marijuana -- is prohibited from being sold in the open and is driven into an underground market dominated by violent drug cartels.

Notably, U.S. firearms policies have contributed significantly to gun violence in the country from which we import much of our international marijuana supply. While there is only one licensed gun dealer in all of Mexico, there are approximately 6,700 firearms retailers along the U.S. side of our southern border. Roughly 70 percent of guns recovered from Mexican criminal activity in the United States between 2007 and 2011 were traced back to U.S. origins.

By keeping marijuana illegal, the United States is effectively fueling international crime rings and cross border violence, and at a cost to human lives, the livelihoods of people we incarcerate and their families, and U.S. tax payers generally. Since its inception in 1971, the War on Drugs has cost the federal government more than $1 trillion -- an average of over $20 billion a year. Comparatively, the president's fiscal year 2015 budget calls for $7.9 billion for the Environmental Protection Agency, $11.8 billion for the Department of Labor, and $17.5 billion to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Moving Justice Forward: Legalizing Possession Is Not Enough

If marijuana legalization is to be socially just, we have to concentrate not only on future decriminalization and breaking up the prison industrial complex, but also on how the benefits of marijuana legalization will be distributed. In particular, I'd like to address some compelling and legitimate concerns, recently advanced by two influential women in the policy realm, about how well-intentioned legalization laws, if not carefully implemented, could continue to perpetuate many of the same systems of societal oppression explained in some detail above.

Who Gets Rich? Who Stays in Prison? Michelle Alexander Talks Ongoing Racial Disparities

Notably, while many of those deriving profit from a booming marijuana industry are white men, a disturbingly high number of black people -- who have been historically been arrested for marijuana at much higher rates than their white counterparts -- continue to languish behind bars, even in states where marijuana has been legalized. Though Colorado has legalized marijuana, for example, more than 210,000 of the state's citizens arrested for marijuana possession between 1986 and 2010 remain imprisoned. The speaks to a lingering injustice that Colorado's legalization laws, however successful at tax revenue generation, continue to perpetuate, and at great human and tax payer expense.

Or, as Michelle Alexander eloquently observed in describing the stark racial contrasts that persist, even in an increasingly post-legalization era:

"In many ways the imagery doesn't sit right. Here are white men poised to run big marijuana businesses, dreaming of cashing in big - big money, big businesses selling weed - after 40 years of impoverished black kids getting prison time for selling weed, and their families and futures destroyed. Now, white men are planning to get rich doing precisely the same thing?"

As we contemplate marijuana legalization in Washington, D.C., it is vital for social justice that we avoid a fate whereby mass incarceration continues unabated and the benefits of marijuana legalization are privatized and concentrated. Notably, the D.C. Council recently voted in favor of a bill that would expunge and permanently seal criminal records for D.C. residents previously arrested on non-violent marijuana charges. The enactment of this law is crucial. If we are to legalize marijuana in my city, it would be unconscionable to keep citizens who had the misfortune of being convicted before the advent of Initiative 71 to remain locked in cages and subject to a lifetime of lesser citizenship rights currently prescribed under federal law.

Sellers vs. Users: Yvette Alexander Talks Sentencing Disparities

Confusingly, Initiative 71 would make it legal to own marijuana, but not legal to sell it. The ongoing disparity in sentencing that Initiative 71 permits prompted Councilmember Yvette Alexander to be the lone dissenter on moving the legislation forward in the D.C. Council.

Her stated rationale:

"There will still be arrests when someone is smoking marijuana on the corner, or when someone is selling marijuana on the corner. If you're the lucky one who happens to possess it, then you're off the hook."

I share Yvette Alexander's concern. It strikes me as downright hypocritical that marijuana suppliers will continue to be punished for distributing a commodity that is permissible to consume without adverse legal consequence.

Encouragingly, the D.C. Council is moving forward with tax-and-regulate legislation that would restore some semblance of equity to marijuana punishment policies in Washington, D.C. Under the "Marijuana Regulation and Legalization Act of 2013," introduced by Councilmember David Grosso, D.C. taxpayers would become beneficiaries of marijuana sales in the District, and authorized marijuana distributors, along with consumers, would be free from the threat of legal prosecution.

Though I do not believe Initiative 71 goes far enough in freeing the 646,000 disenfranchised citizens of D.C. from an oppressive federal policy, I do believe it is a step forward for our city. Should Initiative 71 become law, our people, our families, and our communities will be freer from the threat of incarceration by the heavy hand of a federal government for which we did not vote and against which we have no democratic recourse.

In our nation's capital, we are in the midst of a seemingly unstoppable crisis. Some 5,000 people are arrested for marijuana possession in my city on an annual basis, and roughly 90 percent of those arrested are black. D.C. has the highest per capita arrest rate for marijuana in the United States. We are needlessly and callously -- and at great tax payer cost -- breaking up our families, jeopardizing the futures of our citizens, and fueling a violent underground drug trade we have the opportunity to replace with a system that is accountable and humane.

Marijuana prohibition is expensive, dangerous, and deadly. Now is our opportunity to build something better. I encourage all D.C. voters to vote yes on Initiate 71 this November 4.