Social Justice and Marijuana

grygielny Decriminalization, Marijuana Legalization

This fall is an exciting and pivotal time for us at Clergy for a New Drug Policy.  Progressive national reforms often first gain a foothold in the eastern or western regions of the country. This has been the case with legalizing marijuana. Now we can ensure that this reform will come to our nation’s heartland.  

Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, Nevada, California, and Washington D.C. have already stepped forward. Now, an initiative to legalize marijuana is on the ballot in Michigan for a vote on November 6. In Illinois, there have already been three statewide hearings on a bill that will be introduced in January for the next legislative session.

Over the next two months I will be traveling extensively to speak with clergy in these states about all aspects of legalization.  I will raise with what I believe is a deeper and more fundamental message concerning marijuana and social justice than is often brought forward.

Since the War on Drugs began in earnest in the 1980’s, arrests for low-level possession of marijuana, and all drugs, have fallen disproportionately on African-American and Latinos. Even when not resulting in prison, having a marijuana arrest record is a ball-and-chain of a different kind when it comes to access to jobs, public benefits, education, and, eventually, keeping families together.

Opponents of legalization argue that “decriminalization” (treating marijuana possession as a civil, not criminal offense, like a traffic ticket) stops police from arresting and charging anyone for drug possession. This is not true. States that have transitioned from decriminalization to legalization have seen their rates of marijuana possession arrests drop by as much as 80 percent, including for Black and Hispanic residents. (That police continue to discriminate disproportionately against minorities is a matter of police conduct.  Legalization does not end discrimination.)

Why does legalization result in fewer arrests? Perhaps because the thresholds for the amount that can be possessed are higher under legalization than decriminalization, and because legalization can lead to a change in police behavior. It makes it harder to use suspicion of marijuana possession as a pretext for stopping people.

Regardless of arrest statistics, the deeper social justice message is that “decriminalization” does nothing to limit illicit markets for marijuana.  In fact, it reinforces them. It doesn’t create gangs, which in areas of economic devastation and little or no hope, would exist anyway. But it further destabilizes neighborhoods and recruits young people into an underground world of criminal activity. Prohibition nurtures gangs by providing them with cash from the black market, and incentivizes violence as the only way for illicit drug sellers to resolve disputes and establish market turf.

Illicit markets do not exist in the same way in white neighborhoods. The War on Drugs has always been primarily a war on black and brown people. Marijuana is a significant commodity in this war – at least 30% of total dollar volume. Only by establishing a legal and state-regulated market, can we erode the illicit drug trade which creates such pernicious and disproportionate harm in minority communities.

When it comes to social justice, the current state-by-state debate about marijuana legalization, now unfolding in the Midwest, is about much more than marijuana.  It is about violence in our cities, and the continued marginalization of minorities. I hope as many of you as possible will join me as we bring this perspective to Michigan and Illinois in the next two months.

Rev. Alexander Sharp