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The Unbearable Whiteness of Marijuana Legalization

Marijuana's legal, but people of color are still disproportionately criminalized and incarcerated for drug use.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/arindambanerjee


This article originally appeared at In These Times, and is reprinted here with their permission.

More than half of all drug arrests are for marijuana-related offenses, according to a June 2013 study by the American Civil Liberties Union. So it was big news for drug-lawreform activists when, in January, legal sales of marijuana for recreational use commenced in Colorado. Thanks to a 2012 state ballot initiative, the drug will now be taxed and regulated like alcohol. Washington state is set to implement similar laws later this year, and nationwide, the tide of public opinion seems to be turning: An October 2013 Gallup poll found that a majority of Americans now support marijuana legalization. Many have hailed the easing of marijuana laws as a breakthrough in the fight to end the War on Drugs. But others are skeptical. David Simon, creator of the popular television show "The Wire," suggested that marijuana reforms could actually set back broader efforts, telling an audience in London last summer, “I want the [drug war] to fall as one complete edifice. If they manage to let a few white middle-class people off the hook, that’s very dangerous.” While voters in the relatively white states of Colorado and Washington have backed reform, it still looks a long way off in states with the highest numbers of incarcerated African Americans, such as Iowa, where African Americans are more than eight times as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana possession, according to the ACLU report.

In These Times asked three experts to discuss whether people of color will reap the benefits of marijuana legalization. Joining the discussion were Chicago-based activist Mariame Kaba, founding director of the non-profit Project NIA, which works to decrease youth incarceration; David J. Leonard, associate professor in the department of critical culture, gender and race studies at Washington State University, and Art Way, senior drug policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance in Colorado, which lobbied for legalization.

In These Times: What impact can we expect Colorado and Washington’s new laws to have on drug-related arrests?

Art Way: There will be a disproportionate benefit for those who have borne the brunt of marijuana prohibition. African Americans are about three and a half times more likely to be arrested [in the United States for marijuana-related offenses] than their white counterparts; Latinos are about two times more likely. We’re setting a paradigm that hopefully many other states will follow.

ITT: One worry has been that the high price of legalized marijuana will encourage a black market and that arrests for illegal distribution could actually increase.

Mariame Kaba: I’m very concerned about how this is going to play out on the ground. Young people who are selling drugs because they have no other job opportunities are definitively not going to be able to participate in the formal economy through the dispensaries. Is law enforcement going to go after those young people 20 times harder now?

AW: Yes, I am concerned that distribution charges will increase. Whenever you make change, especially against law enforcement’s status quo, it often finds a way to circumvent that change and maintain its budget. But we haven’t seen anything that will lead us to believe that is taking place right now. And you have to realize that these new marijuana laws are part of a much broader reform movement: Colorado has also been revising its criminal justice laws. The first thing we did once Amendment 64 passed [in Colorado] was to lower criminal penalties for those [between the ages of] 18 and 20 possessing marijuana. So we are already working on preempting any type of net-widening.