There is much to mock in David Brooks’ screed against marijuana in the New York Times Friday. And many already have. But one of Brooks’ central assumptions underlies much of the emerging backlash against marijuana legalization and warrants a serious response. In his column, “Weed: Been There. Done That,” Brooks argues that, as a society, we should decide which cultural pleasures we want to encourage or discourage, and regulate accordingly. He, like many, smoked marijuana in his younger days. In fact, he writes, “It was fun. I have some fond memories of us all being silly together. I think those moments of uninhibited frolic deepened our friendships.” Then he grew up. And he talks about that for much of the rest of the post, before concluding with this:
I’d say that in healthy societies government wants to subtly tip the scale to favor temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship. In those societies, government subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being stoned.
And that’s all Brooks has to say about the way in which the government has regulated pot for the past 40 years, and what repercussions that regulation may have had. To those who, like Brooks, either missed or chose to ignore the not-so-subtle criminal repercussions of the War on Drugs, here are the highlights:
People are jailed, fired, and barred from voting for marijuana. Under federal law and the laws of most states, marijuana possession, distribution, conspiracy, and other related offenses are crimes. They carry jail time. They go on your criminal record. They carry all of the collateral consequences that accompany a host of other crimes in this country, including as a barrier to employment and voting, revocation of professional licenses, loss of educational financial aid, lost access to public benefits and other food stamps, and can even bar the adoption of a child. This New York City art teacher is fighting for his job back. These teens died in jail. And while Colorado and Washington just made history with their legalization measures, arrest and punishment for drug crimes including marijuana has increased exponentially over the past 40 years, changing the course of countless lives.
Blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana. Brooks smoked pot. Heads of state have smoked pot. To many in America’s privileged class, their marijuana phase is just a blip in their life history, which did nothing to obstruct their life path or career aspirations. They are not the ones who suffer from marijuana criminalization. If you’re black in America, you’re four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana, even though all races use marijuana at the same rate. In some states, the disparity is as high as 8 to 1. The overwhelming majority of these arrests are for possession. If you’re poor and black, or if you live in a particular inner city neighborhood, your arrest is a near certainty. Take New York. In 2011, the New York Police Department stopped more young black men under the city’s aggressive stop-and-frisk program than the population of young black men in all of New York City. And the number one reason for arrest as a result of these stops was marijuana, even though marijuana is decriminalized in New York.
Police make more arrests for marijuana than for violent crime. More than 650,000 people were arrested in 2011 just for marijuana possession. To put that into context, that is more people than are arrested for violent crimes in the same year. This doesn’t just mean that the individuals arrested suffer the criminal consequences. It means police resources are being funneled overwhelmingly not just to drug crimes, but to marijuana crimes. Marijuana arrests are low-hanging fruit, particularly for cops who need to make their numbers. But if cops weren’t allowed to spend their time arresting folks for marijuana — or even other drugs — they would have to spend that time doing something else. And while we’re at it, it’s worth pointing out that drug violations were the single most common cause of arrest in 2012, according to FBI estimates. When pursuing convictions for offenses other than possession, the harshest penalties in marijuana and other drug crimes often fall disproportionately on the low-level players who are easy to snag and have little leverage to negotiate their sentences — not the kingpins who pull the strings in the black market.
Americans are serving hard prison time for making medical marijuana available to the sick. Some view medical marijuana as a ruse for legal, recreational use of marijuana. Sometimes, that is true. But many of the federal defendants who were made an example of were those who were doing more to make their dispensaries models for compliance than even the states that were regulating them. Among the medical marijuana victims are Richard Flor, who died in federal custody shackled to a bed, and Jerry Duval, who is serving ten years in prison. In some states, things are even worse. Iowa, for example, has no medical marijuana law, and individuals like Benton MacKenzie who are growing their own marijuana to treat painful cancerous growths have been jailed, evicted, and even subject family members to criminal punishment. In other states like Arizona, parents have stopped giving their critically ill child medical marijuana for fear of prosecution.