Black Lives Matter and the War on Drugs
The War on Drugs was founded on racist principles, so it’s no surprise that the movement to reform drug policy has strong ties to the civil rights movement for people of color. However, with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the implicit racism inherent in the War on Drugs has never been more hotly debated.
In 2010, Michelle Alexander famously compared U.S. drug policies to the racist Jim Crow policies of the post-Civil War South. In a New York Times bestseller, Alexander powerfully demonstrated how drug policy has created a new set of policies aimed at maintaining a racial caste system, sparking a national conversation on race and the War on Drugs. More recently, the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement have called for an end to the inhumane policing practices which arose from punitive drug policies.
Although the War on Drugs has traditionally hurt poor people of color the most, the racial disparities seen in the enforcement of drug crimes can also be seen in the burgeoning cannabis industry, and even in the world of drug policy reform.
In honor of Black History Month, the February issue of the Monthly Mosaic features must-read articles on the intersection between racial justice and the drug policy reform movement.
“This year, my New Year’s resolution was to stop talking about ‘diversity’ in the marijuana industry. It’s a sharp turn, considering that’s what I spent most of 2015 doing. Having co-founded a recruiting firm that emphasizes inclusion in cannabis companies, I sat in dozens of meetings with white ‘ganjapreneurs,’ pointing out the need to bring more people of color into new businesses, conferences and publications devoted to the (largely white) green rush. Yet nothing has changed. The legal marijuana industry still excludes people of color from the wealth and influence it generates. And our industry’s unique history makes our institutional racism particularly shameful.”
The reasons for the racial disparities in the cannabis industry can be seen in the drug war’s history. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander likens the drug war of today to a recreated form of institutionalized racism and oppression.
“The genius of the current caste system, and what most distinguishes it from its predecessors, is that it appears voluntary. People choose to commit crimes, and that’s why they are locked up or locked out, we are told. This feature makes the politics of responsibility particularly tempting, as it appears the system can be avoided with good behavior. But herein lies the trap. All people make mistakes. All of us are sinners. All of us are criminals. All of us violate the law at some point in our lives. In fact, if the worst thing you have ever done is speed ten miles over the speed limit on the freeway, you have put yourself and others at more risk of harm than someone smoking marijuana in the privacy of his or her living room. Yet there are people in the United States serving life sentences for first-time drug offenses, something virtually unheard of anywhere else in the world.”
The connection between the drug war and disparate and unjust policing practices are becoming increasingly clear. In November 2015, Black Lives Matter activists released Campaign Zero, a comprehensive platform for curbing police violence and reforming the criminal justice system in the US. While the platform does not explicitly call for an end to the War on Drugs, it does call for an end to policing practices today such as “broken windows” policing and “policing for profit,” both of which are tightly intertwined with the criminalization of cannabis, as well as the broader drug war.
“Policing is the way white America continues to replicate the cycle of enslavement, the power dynamic on which this society is based. Every time a black man is arrested, it’s a reenactment of that dynamic.”
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, marijuana arrests now account for over half of all drug arrests in the United States. Of the 8.2 million marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010, 88% were for simply having marijuana. Nationwide, the arrest data reveal one consistent trend: significant racial bias. Despite roughly equal usage rates, blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana. That disparity is even more grossly magnified in Iowa, D.C., Minnesota, and Illinois, where blacks are 7.5 to 8.5 more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites.
“If Black lives mattered, America would fix this broken system and keep Black families intact by not casually ruining their futures because of simple drug possession. We have become complacent and we’ve allowed our policymakers to enact laws and policies that make Black and Brown lives disposable. To make matters worse, we have used drug use and drug policies as weapons to demonize and devalue our beloveds. So, I will use my time in Ferguson, as we remind those of us gathered there that Black lives matter—even Black people who use and sell drugs.”
“I think part of our work is actually talking to the people whose lives have been decimated by this war, and having us shape the actual conversation. It is not valuable to hear about someone’s theory about how our lives could be impacted. That’s not valuable. What’s valuable is sitting with the people who have survived or are trying to survive the drug war, and asking us what we think can change this war and abolish this war.”
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