I am writing in response to the recent concern by many community members regarding the legalization of marijuana in Washington. For many, this legalization was met with the valid concern about the health and safety of our youth. Others argue that this new law is positive, as marijuana use poses no more of a threat to the public than alcohol, and the tax will bring in hundreds of millions of dollars for Washington that can be used for schools, health care and basic government functions. However, I think it is necessary to zoom out to some broader issues regarding the War on Drugs that shed light onto why this legalization may mean legal equity for minorities in Washington.
First, it is important to point out that the United States has spent more than $1 trillion on the War on Drugs; however, these drug laws have not reduced drug crime.
Second, War on Drugs policies, such as penalties for marijuana possession and sales, systematically target minorities. African Americans represent 74 percent of drug sentences in America, although they only represent 13 percent of the population. This is an incredible discrepancy given the fact that they are no more likely to be guilty of drug crimes than other groups. According to the last Human Rights Watch study on drug arrests, published in 2009, black Washington residents are 5.1 times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes than white residents, a ratio even more disparate than our national figure. Ironically, studies show that white professionals are actually more likely to engage in illegal drug activity in their lifetime than any other group, yet they are the least likely to be arrested for possession and sales.
Third, marijuana policies are historically linked to prejudice. According to author and Professor Emerita at UC Santa Cruz, Angela Davis, before the 1960s, marijuana was associated with people of color. During that time, the Boggs Act of 1950 gave first-time marijuana users a sentence of two to five years in prison. A decade later, when marijuana became associated with the white middle class and college kids, federal penalties were lowered.
Now let’s look at some specifics of the legislation that was just passed — it decriminalizes possession of up to an ounce, favoring marijuana users rather than dealers. This is important because although drug dealers are more likely to directly affect the community, more arrests are made for drug possession, affecting those who are not considered as direct a threat to our society.
While there are some valid concerns about the effect of this new law on youth, it is important to view the law in a broader historical context. At its best, legalization could encourage government accountability in addressing discriminatory policies. By critically examining the law from a wider perspective, we see that this law eliminates one of the — if not the — most dominant means by which our legal system unfairly targets minorities, something most of us can agree is a positive change.
2010 MIHS graduate Junior, Scripps College, California