The decriminalization of marijuana has sped up dramatically over the last decade.
But we all know that using pot has only generally been a crime for certain people.
Last year, 52 percent of the more than 1.5 million drug arrests in the United States involved marijuana. Yet those who have to worry most about arrest for pot use are those who’ve always had to worry most about being constrained by our government.
“When it comes to race, blacks continue to be disproportionately represented among drug arrestees,” according StoptheDrugWar.org. “African-Americans accounted for 30.7 percent of all drug arrests, but they only make up about 13 percent of the population. That means blacks are being arrested for drugs at 2 ½ times the rate their percentage of the population would predict.” And the rate of incarceration is even higher, though whites and blacks use drugs at similar rates.
Of course, this inequality in enforcement is no accident, as Michelle Alexander explains in The New Jim Crow.
Decriminalization is promising. But the way it’s happening should worry anyone who cares about civil rights in America. By effectively endorsing a federalist approach that allows states and localities to “experiment” with legalization in violation of federal law invites the kind of selective enforcement that pollutes any attempt at promoting equality that doesn’t have its foundations in national enforcement.
Ending the prohibition on marijuana is an idea that’s past due. Even Republicans get this. Glenn Renyolds — whose @Instapundit Twitter feed is as wretched a hive of scum and villainy as you’ll find on the Internet — wisely put it on his list of “6 bills the GOP should pass.”
Democrats seem reluctant to seize this issue, likely because of that musty fear of seeming soft on crime. A relic of an era when crime rates weren’t falling almost constantly.
But ending failed prohibitions is the left’s job. It also speaks to what I think should be the Democratic theme of 2016 — making America work for everyone. We shouldn’t have absurd laws that make hypocrites out of police — who have smoked pot and likely will do so again. We shouldn’t have laws that invite selective enforcement and sacrifice “those people” to “drug war” that has done nothing to reduce the demand of drugs.
The real danger of ending marijuana prohibition has been noted by The Wire‘s David Simon, who fears it will actually perpetuate the War on Drugs.
“I want the thing to fall as one complete edifice,” he said last year. “If they manage to let a few white middle-class people off the hook, that’s very dangerous. If they can find a way for white kids in middle-class suburbia to get high without them going to jail, and getting them to think that what they do is a million miles away from black kids taking crack, that is what politicians would do.”
That’s why Democrats should be bold in taking on the broader issues of ending mass incarceration and police militarization, two of the worst byproducts of the War on Drugs. Ending marijuana prohibition can only be a first step
Don’t let “libertarians” claim the lead fighting fundamental injustices, such as asset forfeiture. And we must point out the weaknesses of conservative policies by endorsing wildly popular ideas like universal background checks and funding the training and hiring of high-quality police officers. We should also introduce ideas that connect police to those they protect, like annual bonuses for officers who live in their community.
The criminalization of marijuana is antithetical to the rule of law.
It doesn’t just waste money, it denies the public funding that could be used to improve and secure communities. And it’s an issue that conservatives could and should grab to seem sensible to young people who are appalled by the right’s stands against the freedoms to marry and a woman’s right to make her own choices about her body.
If Democrats don’t embrace this the right side of this issue soon, they’ll regret it.
#2016Ideas is my highly presumptuous attempt to focus the 2016 Democratic primary on an agenda that helps America work for everyone.
[Image by Clyde Robinson | via Flickr]