Reality Check on Bravo Housewives: Marijuana Use Doesn't Discriminate, But Marijuana Enforcement Does
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On the October 11th episode of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, I anxiously awaited the aftermath of the Dwight Eubanks and NeNe Leakes showdown from the season premiere the week before. Instead, my ears perked up as Phaedra, one of the newest housewives, met with one of her clients, who had recently been charged with marijuana possession. Phaedra warned him of the collateral consequences that would occur if he continued getting arrested for marijuana. These consequences include not just arrest and incarceration, but also loss of employment, loss of child custody, and loss of public benefits such as public housing or financial aid for college.
Later, NeNe talked about her own son, Brice, and his arrest for marijuana possession. NeNe was extremely upset about Brice's arrest and talked about her fears as a mother for her son and the collateral consequences of being arrested. The fear in her eyes and voice as she painted the picture of the criminal justice system for Brice is all too familiar to many mothers of young black men. The consequences that these two young men face are serious - and, sadly, mirror the experiences of millions of young black men and their families.
Some of you may be thinking: "Serious consequences for marijuana? No way, it's just pot." But getting charged with marijuana possession is a lot more serious than most people think. Once someone has a criminal record, their employment opportunities are severely diminished, and there is a good chance they will get hopelessly entangled in the criminal justice system, which currently supervises more than 7 (seven!) million Americans. Marijuana arrests are the primary mechanism by which young black men are brought into the criminal justice system. While the conversation around pot is becoming more mainstream around the country, in black communities these minor nonviolent arrests effectively remove millions of otherwise law-abiding people from mainstream society. In Phaedra's interview, she explained how 1 in 3 African American males in Atlanta have a criminal record. As the show continued, I took a mental note that Atlanta would not be a place where I would want to raise a black son. While I am not saying that these two African American males featured on RHOA were racially targeted for their marijuana possession/use, the evidence shows that overall black men are disproportionately targeted by police.
Queens College professor Harry Levine has recently published several reports on marijuana arrests in California and New York City. The results are surprising - even though marijuana is less harmful than alcohol or tobacco, there has been a drastic increase in marijuana possession arrests in the United States over the past two decades. In New York City, where I live and work, blacks and Latinos represent almost 90% of NYC's marijuana arrests. In fact NYC has the leading number of marijuana arrests in the United States. Not to be overshadowed, Atlanta has the highest racial disparity percentage in marijuana arrests in the U.S.
Interestingly, later in the week, I watched the Real Housewives of DC reunion show. When Andy Cohen, host of Watch What Happens Live and all the Real Housewives reunions, asked Mary Schmidt Amons about her rumored prescription drug misuse, Lynda Erkiletian piped in that she smoked pot regularly before even drinking alcohol. The whole couch laughed - but notably Stacie Turner, the only African American housewife on the show, sat on the couch with her mouth gaping open in shock. I also stared at the television in shock that Lynda publicly revealed her marijuana use on national television.
But then I did some more research - and found that according to government data, white people use marijuana at the same rate as blacks. So why should I be surprised that Lynda is a regular pot smoker? I shouldn't! Despite the media's over-emphasis on blacks smoking marijuana and racially disproportionate arrest rates throughout the U.S., white people do smoke marijuana - a lot. I am sure that more RHODC women on the couch would have admitted to smoking marijuana if they were in the privacy of one of the housewives' homes, without BRAVO cameras. While I applaud Lynda for being honest about her marijuana use on national television, it doesn't stop me from thinking about how different the marijuana conversation was between Lynda and Brice, NeNe's son. Do white parents have to give their children the talk about "living in America while white?" No matter where you are in the country, if you are young and black, you are always at high risk of getting swept into our unforgiving criminal justice system. Changing marijuana enforcement practices would not end this problem, but would go a long way toward improving people's faith in the fairness of the criminal justice system - and improving the lives of the millions of young black men.