When Colorado and Washington State legalized pot for recreational use, those who supported it had a lot of reasons. It’s just as safe or safer than alcohol. It infringes on civil liberties. It diverts police resources away from violent crime at a high cost that yields little benefit. It funnels young people into the criminal justice system, and those young people are disproportionately black or brown.
In Washington, D.C., where the vast majority of residents are progressive, all of these arguments are also cited. But it is race that dominates the conversation. The district has a population of African Americans that hovers near 50 percent, and a history of being a majority-black city once known as “Chocolate City.” Yet blacks in the District are eight times more likely than whites to be arrested for pot possession even though they use pot at the same rates, according to American Civil Liberties Union data analysis.
It is this injustice that moved Washington to decriminalize pot last year, amidst statistics that 90 percent of those arrested for marijuana in D.C. are African American. And it is this injustice that may have propelled the D.C. ballot initiative to likely passage, even though it was proposed well after those in Alaska and Oregon, also on the ballot this November. The most recent NBC4/Washington Post/Marist poll from September found that likely D.C. voters favor the marijuana ballot initiative by a dramatic margin of 2-to-1.
The young white — mostly progressive — new residents who have moved into the District also overwhelmingly favor legalization by a margin of 7 in 10.
But the race element is so dominant that the leaders of both the opposition and support campaigns talk about the issue in terms of civil rights, with the debate taking shape in black churches. At a community forum at Shiloh Baptist Church of Washington Tuesday night in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Shaw, African American residents talked about issues of morality, justice, and religion.
“The church’s job is to speak to the power. It’s to deal with issues of equity,” said labor economist Julianne Malveaux, a strong proponent of legalization and a congregant at Shiloh Baptist Church. She also talked about the economic concept of “scarring.” Scarring impacts individuals who graduated college during the recession, and it also impacts those arrested for marijuana possession, whose criminal record then becomes an obstacle to not just employment, but also student loans and housing.
“Let’s talk about the casualties,” said AJ Cooper, the founder of a commercial aquaponic grower who is vying to thwart the “Wal-Marts of weed,” and a former D.C. Council candidate. “If you are a black man in D.C. then you know these casualties personally because they are the people that we went to high school with. They’re the people in the neighborhood. Some of them are doing decades for nonviolent drug offenses, other just have their dreams deferred because they are arrested with a dime bag on a Saturday night and now they have a criminal record.”
William Jones, a 24-year-old black man and a leader of the opposition campaign, takes the opposite view on the civil rights implications of legalizing pot. “I used to look up the civil rights movement where we weren’t trying to look for ways to let people legally get high, but we were pursuing higher education,” he said. Jones leads T.I.E. D.C., which stands for “Two Is Enough” (referring to alcohol and tobacco) and argues that society is still battling the “negative impact of tobacco and alcohol on our youth, families, and communities” and that companies that produce these drugs have “disproportionately targeted and affected communities of color.”
Proponents of legalization argue that these issues are neither contradictory nor mutually exclusive. Legalization, they say, is intended to regulate the industry not make it a free-for-all, and to re-allocate resources toward educating kids about marijuana and ensuring the safety of products sold, while eliminating the violence and gangs that are fostered by illicit marijuana.
Corey L. Barnette, who owns a cultivation center and medical marijuana dispensary in Washington, said he lost his brother to drug violence. “It’s kind of ironic that i’m in this industry now,” Barnette said. “But when you think about prohibition the problem is that you have now taken the ability to filter out of everyone’s hands.”
“There is a reason why no one is in your alley selling Jack Daniels,” he added.
It was just four years ago that only 35 percent of African Americans in Washington, D.C. favored legalizing marijuana, according to the Washington Post. Then, they feared marijuana abuse by black youth, and many still do.
“For many, ‘drugs’ is an umbrella and it doesn’t matter that it’s just marijuana [and not crack or heroine],” said Sandra Jowers-Barber, an assistant professor of history at the University of the District of Columbia. “It’s a destroyer, and has been a destroyer of families and a destroyer of communities.”
Barber said many older residents in D.C. have the “historical memory” of the crack epidemic in Washington, D.C., when addiction demolished entire neighborhoods and there were hundreds of open-air markets.
Barber is critical of the legalization movement. But many in the city have come to view this legacy differently. Crack, after all, was illegal during this epidemic. And many of the same African Americans who are all-too-familiar with this history have also come to recognize the adverse consequences of arresting youths for using marijuana — and that whites in the city are dramatically less likely to suffer those consequences for the same conduct.
“Once you get in the criminal system, the long-term health effects are significantly worse than any health effects associated with marijuana use,” said Malik Burnett, a policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance who has both medical and business degrees. Burnett said he got into the drug legalization movement not because he is a supporter of marijuana but because he is an opponent of prohibition. Victims of the War on Drugs have been “perniciously abused for decades now,” he says, and prohibition gets in the way of intelligent conversations with children about the drug — conversations he believes should start with: Don’t use marijuana at all for recreational purposes.
Jones, the opposition leader, doesn’t dispute that police have targeted blacks in marijuana arrests. But he views legalizing marijuana as an “easy answer” that doesn’t address the “police and the system.” Jones is not alone in this view. The ACLU of the Nation’s Capital, which has been at the forefront of illuminating the racial disparities in marijuana prosecutions, has been among the first to say that legalizing marijuana is not enough to reform police culture. They are calling for much more. But it’s also some response, particularly given that many of the current police tactics that most enrage civil rights leaders originated from the War on Drugs.
Retired police office Ronald Hampton was on the D.C. police force at the height of the crack epidemic. At that time, he said, more than 53,000 people were arrested under the guise of a subversive police operation, but more than three-quarters of them had nothing to do with crack or drugs. They had “all to do with evidence of black folks being caught up in road blocks and traps” because they wanted to be able to “say they were doing something about the crack epidemic.”
Washington, D.C.’s ballot initiative is much narrower than those in other states. Because of federal law that limits what the District can do through its own ballot initiatives, Initiative 71 simply legalizes greater amounts of possession and allows individuals to grow up to three plants. But it does not set up a tax and regulate system. The hope is that the D.C. Council will pass a law to add those elements if the ballot initiative passes, and if Congress doesn’t use its extraordinary oversight powers over the District to block the law. And both of the mayoral candidates say they support legalization.
“It will be fairly stringently regulated,” Councilman David Grosso said of the regulatory scheme, “which I think some folks will like and some folks will not like, and we’re gonna have to work through this.”