What do Rihanna's Pot-Smoking Photos Really Reveal? The Divide Between Mainstream Culture and Drug Law
Celebrity megastar Rihanna has toured all over the world and vacationed all over the western hemisphere in the last month. This week, photos hit the blogs of Rihanna doing what at least 40 percent of the country admits to doing every so often – relaxing with some marijuana. Borrowing loosely from Drake’s hit single “Up all Night,” she tweeted, "Waken...Baken...Good morning.......Kush rolled, glass full...I prefer the better things!"
Rihanna is another example of how normalized marijuana use has become in mainstream culture. Celebrities regularly admit using marijuana, often citing its physical and mental health benefits. People like Barbara Streisand, Justin Timberlake, and Bette Midler have all been very open about their marijuana use. Timberlake said he sometimes even smokes with his mother. In a “60 Minutes” interview, Lady Gaga said that she often smokes marijuana while writing music.
As common as it is for celebrities to admit their marijuana use, it remains shamefully common for young black and Latino men to be arrested for marijuana possession, especially in New York. More than 550,000 have been arrested for marijuana possession in New York City alone in the last 15 years.
A brief history of marijuana law in New York is in order. Marijuana possession was decriminalized in 1977 – and that law’s still on the books. Possessing up to 25 grams of marijuana in one’s pocket or bag is a violation – similar to a jaywalking ticket. Although if it is burning or in public view, it is a misdemeanor.
If marijuana is decriminalized, how come there were more than 50,000 low-level marijuana arrests in New York City 2010? These arrests are largely the result of NYPD stopping and frisking more than a half-million mostly young black and Latino men and falsely charging them for marijuana possession in public view. Young black and Latino New Yorkers comprise 86 percent of these arrests – 70 percent are under the age of 30, and 52 percent are between the ages of 16-22. These arrests are all-too-typical in poor communities of color – even though according to the federal government’s own research, blacks and Latinos are no more likely than other Americans to use or sell marijuana. Lady Gaga’s new beau Mayor Bloomberg (they shared a New Year’s kiss) has arrested more people for marijuana possession than the previous three mayors (Koch, Dinkins and Guiliani) combined.
Getting arrested for marijuana is no small matter – not least because it creates a permanent criminal record that can easily be found on the Internet by employers, landlords, schools, credit agencies, licensing boards and banks. People like Rihanna or Drake, both non-US citizens, could be deported if they are arrested in New York for marijuana possession. Barbara Streisand, a native New Yorker, could have potentially lost custody of her children because NYC’s Administration for Children Services could file a petition of abuse or neglect in family court, with sole allegation being Barbara’s admitted marijuana use. Drake’s label mate, Lil Wayne, could get sent back to prison for violating probation if he were to be arrested for marijuana possession. These consequences seem extreme for these celebrities, (well maybe not Lil Wayne), but are the reality for young black and Latino New Yorkers.
In September, Police Commissioner Kelly issued a department-wide operation order to all police officers to clarify to the marijuana law in New York City. He stated that officers should not arrest New Yorkers for low-level marijuana possession unless the marijuana is actually in public view, as the 1977 decriminalization law specifies. However, the evidence since then show that many officers have ignored Commissioner Kelly and have continued these racist, costly and unconstitutional marijuana arrests.
So as Rihanna continues her vacation in Hawaii – which happens to be one of 17 states that has legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes – I hope someone in her camp tells her to stay away from the police in New York, or else her next vacation could be a one-way ticket to her native country of Barbados.