Because non-violent drug arrests affect black men and women disproportionately, I find myself agreeing with the sentiments of California NAACP head Alice Huffman, who supports an upcoming ballot measure to legalize marijuana in the state. Countless studies have shown that black Americans’ drug use is in line with our share of the U.S. population (about 12-13 percent of black Americans use illegal drugs), but our drug arrests far outpace that. Non-violent drug crimes help explain the soaring rate of black incarceration in the 1980s and through the 1990s.
“I’m not encouraging anyone to recreationally use marijuana,” said Ms. Huffman. “I am simply focused on the injustice and the disparities in the criminal justice system.”
Her view is supported by Dr. Jocelyn Elders, former U.S. Surgeon General:
Last week, proponents secured what they view as a major endorsement, that of Dr. Joycelyn Elders, the former United States surgeon general and the first black to hold that position.
In a statement to be published in a voter guide, Dr. Elders said the legalization bill would help divert law enforcement resources to more serious threats. “We can let police prevent violent crime, or we can accept the status quo, and keep wasting resources sending tens of thousands of nonviolent marijuana consumers — a disproportionate number who are minorities — to jail,” Dr. Elders wrote.
But I also have some sympathy for the view of black pastors such as the Rev. Ron Allen:
I was a pastor on crack cocaine, sir,” said Mr. Allen, who says he has been sober for 11 years and now identifies himself as the bishop of the International Faith Based Coalition here. “Drugs have no religious preference.”
And while crack cocaine laid him low, Mr. Allen says his first drug of choice was marijuana. So it is that Mr. Allen and a cadre of other black pastors, priests and other religious leaders have bonded together in recent weeks to fight what they see as a potentially devastating blow to their communities: Proposition 19, the California ballot measure that would tax and regulate marijuana.
But marijuana is no more a “gateway drug” than alcohol is. Hundreds of thousands of Americans use marijuana recreationally and don’t become addicted to other drugs. Legalizing cocaine is probably a bad idea, but legalizing and taxing marijuana may cripple the Mexican drug trade, free prison beds for violent criminals and allow police to concentrate on violent crimes.