The Big Implications of a Nasty Fight to Stop Marijuana Legalization in California

The presidential election campaign and its shock outcome revealed many of America’s ugly fractures around racism and how far we are from achieving social justice. Sadly, while working in drug policy for the past six years, I have seen the very same issues exposed within the ranks of those who supposedly support marijuana reform.


California’s voters resoundingly approved the legalization of marijuana for adult-use last Tuesday. It was one of a string of legalization victories around the US, and one for which I and many others campaigned hard.

The opposition we faced was not only unethical, but in some cases, truly disturbing. That’s why, even though the campaign is now over, it’s important to recall how it was fought, in case we fail to learn the lessons.

Horrifyingly, over the last few weeks of the campaign, pro-marijuana opponents of Proposition 64 (formerly known as the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, or AUMA) resorted to racial tropes and incendiary language to try to drive home their points.

As The Influence has previously reported, some of the professed motivations of the pro-marijuana/anti-Prop. 64 camp, which ranged from the debatable to the deranged, included a dislike of major donors and concerns about disruption of the medical marijuana market.

They also adopted other messaging from organizations such as Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), led by Kevin Sabet—accusing reformers of using social justice talking-points to dupe voters and pave the way for “Big Marijuana.” (I noted this SAM strategy in an article for Ladybud magazine back in 2014, linking to a slide used by Sabet that said prohibitionists must push back against the message that ending the war on marijuana means social justice.)

Of course, some fringe activists and extremists can always be expected to spread toxic messages. During my 20-year career in California law enforcement I worked on our gang unit, and eventually managed it as a sergeant. That meant I had to become an expert on skinheads, neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

But it feels so appalling that in 2016, in the context of a marijuana legalization campaign, I find myself having to explain that the “New World Order” (NWO) is just coded language developed by racists. Fringe, anti-Prop. 64 marijuana activists deployed this trope to engender fear of a global corporate takeover of the marijuana industry.

It is at, its basest level, anti-semitism—utilized because the billionaire and philanthropist George Soros, a longstanding funder of the Drug Policy Alliance, which was a key backer of Prop. 64, is Jewish.

This was published by Prop. 64 opponents on October 12, accompanied by some images intended to insult:

And this is not a solitary example.

Letitia Pepper, an attorney who was one of the most vocal anti-64 marijuana activists, actually declared in an October 19 Facebook Live broadcast that Californians who have used marijuana in the past 20 years—under medical marijuana laws that she compared with “Jim Crow” laws—have “been treated like the niggers.” (She contended that the context justified her use of the N-word.)

You couldn’t make this stuff up.

Radio host, marijuana activist and journalist Russ Belville was spot-on when he addressed her statement in Weed News:

“While Pepper’s use of the infamous racial epithet is deplorable, her casual equalization of life for cannabis consumers under twenty years of California’s medical marijuana law with the century of terrorism and apartheid experienced by African-Americans between the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil Rights Act is far more reprehensible.”

Despite Trump’s victory, most Americans are appalled at overt displays of racism and hate crimes. Yet all too often we fail to recognize subtler examples, or accept the existence of structural and institutional racism. Too often, we fail to recognize the long history of social control and state-sponsored violence against people of color, and the laws that facilitated these injustices. We fail to make the the connection between individualized acts of hate and institutionalized bias, viewing the racists among us as outliers, rather than common products of a systemic denial of equal rights.

Marijuana prohibition and the wider drug war were racist in their conception and have been instruments of racism throughout their existence. They helped to create and exacerbate the school-to-prison pipeline, extraordinary racial disparities throughout the criminal justice system, and many egregious individual policies—such as “Stop-and-Frisk,” which produced these results in New York, according to the NYCLU:

“Young black and Latino men were the targets of a hugely disproportionate number of stops. Though they account for only 4.7 percent of the city’s population, black and Latino males between the ages of 14 and 24 accounted for 40.6 percent of stops in 2012. The number of stops of young black men neared the entire city population of young black men (133,119 as compared to 158,406). More than 90 percent of young black and Latino men stopped were innocent.”

The marijuana arrests that have taken place in California and will continue across our nation demonstrate the disparities in enforcement caused by a morally flawed law. Research has consistently shown that despite equal rates of consumption between people of different races, people of color are arrested far more than whites.

As an example, a recent Drug Policy Alliance report reflects that Latinos have been “arrested for marijuana offenses 35 percent more often than white people in California” since 2006. Or that  “black people were more than twice as likely as white people to be arrested for a marijuana misdemeanor and nearly five times more likely than white people to be arrested for a marijuana felony.”

This graph is from the DPA report:

And according to California Department of Justice crime data from 2014, of the 13,300 people arrested for marijuana-related felonies, over half were people of color; of the 6,411 misdemeanor arrests, almost two-thirds (nearly 4,000) were black or Latino. And despite a 2015 drop in felony arrests, the 2015 data continue to reflect the same disparities.

So however egregious the behavior of individual Prop. 64 opponents, I believe that their collective failure to recognize or sufficiently weigh the inherent racism in the enforcement of our marijuana laws is best understood as part of a wider system that continues to marginalize people of color.

In an article in The Root in late October, titled “How We Can Reap Reparations From Marijuana Reform,” Deborah Small, founder of Break the Chains, reflected on why Prop. 64 was a vehicle to achieve social justice by repairing the harms of marijuana prohibition in California for people of color.

“AUMA provides sentencing relief, resentencing and release for people incarcerated for marijuana offenses, clearing records and removing barriers for reentry into society. Minors under 18 will not get a criminal record for youthful indiscretions. It authorizes resentencing and record expungement for prior marijuana convictions and eliminates the use of a prior drug conviction as a barrier to jobs and licenses in the industry. Communities that have been harmed by marijuana-law enforcement will directly benefit from the passage of Prop 64.”

In view of which, I was extremely troubled when I saw this pop up on my Twitter feed:

This is the perfect example of both cannabis privilege and white privilege. Jamie Kerr owns a state-compliant, licensed cannabis collective in Redding. She is part of the $1.3 billion medical marijuana industry in our state. She ignores how the “green rush” has been whitewashed; how bans on people with convictions and steep regulatory costs fuel economic and social injustice across the emerging industry—and how the selective prohibition that Kerr continues to support conveniently gives her the chance to succeed while denying access to others.

I wonder how many more black and Latino people would need to be arrested for her to rate the social justice issue at more than 10 percent.

Sadly, I have seen similar desensitization in law enforcement for years. But it’s even more troubling when it creeps into an industry that has itself felt its fair share of abuses by those in positions of power.

Kerr was not merely an isolated opponent of Prop. 64. She also joined forces with other prohibitionists, sharing a stage with Kevin Sabet and citing her all-important business concerns:

“Let’s face it, the marijuana business doesn’t have the best reputation,” said Kerr, who conceded that new recreational competition could harm her business.”

She also debated for the No on 64 campaign, and published an opinion piece in the Orange County Register where she states:

“Legalization is more than an economic issue, more than a social justice issue, and is about more than just ending prohibition.”

We can all agree to disagree on policy details. But when a member of the industry displays such a complete lack of empathy towards past, current or future victims of the war on marijuana, it should trouble us all.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor,” said Desmond Tutu. Kerr’s “neutrality” about the morality and social justice implications of marijuana prohibition is either pure cynicism or derived from the blinding effect of  her privilege.

As important as it is to look at policy based on empirical and scientific evidence about its potential outcomes, the morality of our laws (or lack of it) should be our main guide in shaping them. It is good that marijuana legalization boosts economies, but that isn’t why we should do it.

The morality of our entire society is undermined by the racist roots of prohibition and the War on Drugs, and the continuing racial disparities in law enforcement and the whole criminal justice system.

If I met Jamie Kerr, I would encourage her to ask some of the hundreds of thousands of people arrested for felony and misdemeanor marijuana offenses in California in the last decade if the social justice element of Prop. 64 represented “less than 10 percent” of the issue. To ask their family members how their loved ones’ arrests, convictions and incarcerations affected their lives.

Kevin Sabet once described marijuana laws and their enforcement as “mean-spirited.” I guess my view of being “mean-spirited” is just slightly different. And the trouble is, for every Sabet and every Kerr, there are so many others, below the radar, who fail to think critically about the nexus between drug prohibition and social justice.

And now that it’s clear that both marijuana and Trump were resounding winners in this election, the kind of mean-spiritedness Sabet espouses could lead to federal attempts to punish those states that dared to push back against a failed drug war. Sabet is certainly imagining the use of the Controlled Substances Act to do just that:

I hope that Kerr and others will realize how they were manipulated by the likes of Sabet, to whom the further erosion of human rights, justice and civil liberties would be mere collateral damage.

Few prohibitionists have not experienced how enforcement actually works on the streets. Few have been subject to the dehumanizing practices that take place every day, like unconstitutional roadside body-cavity searches, or this horrific beating, based on racial profiling and an alleged marijuana offense. Perhaps they don’t think of it. Perhaps they simply don’t care.

The victory of Proposition 64 in California is a huge step forward, one that will prevent many lives from being ruined. But while we should celebrate, we shouldn’t go too far. Because this victory will not, by itself—and even if repeated in many other states—end our society’s continuing apathy towards the plight of less privileged people. Nor will it completely eliminate issues of bias in policing enforcement practices; yet it will allow us to shine a spotlight on those practices and develop further strategies to combat them.

The costs associated with drug prohibition and the collateral consequences of its enforcement have adversely impacted countless individuals, families and communities, as well as our whole society, our sense of justice and the rule of law.

Our mission to dismantle prohibition will mean little unless we prioritize the needs and rights of those who have been most harmed by it.

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