How Firing Teachers for Marijuana Could Widen the Race Gap in Education

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Behind a veiled claim of protecting the public, collateral sanctions continue to be heaped upon those arrested for using drugs. While these policies may be well intentioned, they are creating an inter-generational chain reaction that unjustly impacts entire communities for decades to come.

Every time a well-meaning lawmaker adds another collateral sanction or lifetime punishment for a drug violation, he or she advances the New Jim Crow (the impetus for segregation), and further arms the drug war, which has had a disproportionate impact on black and Latino communities.

Such is the case of Democratic California Assemblymember Joan Buchanan's bill AB 375. At first glance, it seems like a good bill, making it easier to suspend or fire teachers who are charged with or convicted of sex offenses or other serious misconduct. However, it also includes provisions to make it easier to drum a teacher out of his or her job for low-level drug offenses, including growing or using marijuana on their own time, away from school, even if it is prescribed by a doctor.

While it is not the intent of this bill to disqualify greater numbers of black and Latino teachers than whites, that will likely be its effect. In 2010, the arrest rate for marijuana misdemeanors per 100,000 persons varied greatly by race: black: 473 per 100,000; Latino: 169; white: 142; Asian: 65.

A marijuana arrest can deny access to college funding, business and contractor licenses, public assistance like food stamps, healthcare, and housing, and even the right to vote (for a nonviolent drug conviction). These kinds of punitive policies thus further disenfranchise black and Latino communities disproportionately affected by the drug war, building a permanent underclass of untouchables.

But it doesn’t stop there. As an unintended consequence of the effort to destroy the lives and abilities for success among those who use drugs, policymakers are systematically removing the mentors of the next generation and quashing the examples they might have set for today’s youth.

Teachers can already be dismissed for being intoxicated on the job, or if their use involves a minor. These are policies that the Drug Policy Alliance wholeheartedly supports. However, AB 375 would police the private lives of teachers and make dismissal a reality for behavior conducted on their own time, including cultivating or using marijuana for personal medical use.

Whenever the punishments for drug arrests or drug convictions are widened, as is the case in this bill, the lifetime collateral consequences fall hardest on people of color, their families and communities. Even as Californians’ attitudes toward marijuana have become more accepting, the number of persons arrested for marijuana offenses has skyrocketed, and the racial disparities in enforcement have become even more severe. In 2010, California imprisoned blacks for marijuana offenses at a rate 10 times the rate of other races, despite rates of use and selling that are approximately equal among all racial and ethnic groups.

Most of the people likely to be fired, suspended, or disqualified for teaching would be men. However, female arrests have become more common in the last 20 years. Arrests of women in California for marijuana misdemeanors increased 169% from 1990 to 2009 (2071 vs. 7329) compared to a 120% increase for men. This was most pronounced among black women who suffered a 154% increase compared to a 115% increase for white women.

Given the already disparate demographics of California teachers compared to their students, this bill threatens to widen that gap. Of the 283,836 teachers in the classroom in California for the 2011-2012 school year, a mere 18% were Hispanic and 4% were black. Furthermore, only 5% were Hispanic males and 1% were black males. That same year, Hispanic students accounted for 53% and black students accounted for over 6% of those enrolled in California schools.

Where are the potential role models for these students? Where are the teachers who look like they do? Black males make up 29% of the California prison population and Hispanic males comprise 40%. The institutional racism of the war on drugs is threatening to invade the classroom.

The drug war is a racist war. Building on its foundation would be a mistake. If AB 375 isn’t amended, the institutional racism of the war on drugs will have made it into the classroom.

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