Note to Jay Leno: Marijuana Is Not "Essentially Legal" -- More Than 800,000 People a Year Are Arrested for It

Rep. Barney Frank appeared on “The Tonight Show” Tuesday night  and, among other issues, strongly reiterated his support for reforming our failed marijuana laws. Jay Leno countered that “Smoking marijuana is essentially legal now. You can get it anywhere, and if you get caught, it’s the most minimum [consequences]…”

Leno articulated a common misperception about marijuana enforcement in the United States, that it may be technically illegal, but as he put it, “Anyone that wants to smoke can smoke.” In fact, enforcement of marijuana laws is at an all-time high in this country, especially in California.

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The police arrest nearly 850,000 people every year for all marijuana offenses. The overwhelming majority of those arrested – nearly 90 percent – are charged with possession only. These possession arrests represent half of all drug arrests in the United States and outnumber arrests for all violent crimes combined. That sure doesn’t sound “essentially legal” to me! In Leno’s home state police arrested over 61,000 Californians last year for possession of small amounts of marijuana, more than triple the number in 1990.

At the heart of this startling escalation of marijuana arrests in California and nationwide are profound racial disparities, the targeting of young black men. A report released by the Drug Policy Alliance  found that in every one of California’s 25 largest counties, African Americans are arrested for marijuana possession at double, triple or even quadruple the rate of whites, even though young blacks consume marijuana at lower rates than young whites.

Marijuana possession arrests create permanent drug records that can have disastrous life-long consequences, especially for the young people of color who are disproportionally targeted. These records can be easily found on the Internet by employers, landlords, schools, credit agencies, licensing boards, and banks. Marijuana arrestees face loss of employment, student aid, child custody, subsidized housing, voting privileges, adoption rights, and certain federal welfare benefits, such as food stamps.

Jay Leno reminds us that many people, particularly well-to-do white folks, are simply unaware and untouched by these troubling realities. Marijuana reform is a criminal justice and civil rights priority. Californians have an opportunity to strike a blow for justice right now by supporting the passage of Proposition 19, which will bring common sense control and end the massive waste of scarce law enforcement resources marijuana prohibition has caused.

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