“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”
– Harry Anslinger, first Drug Czar.
As we approach the 75th anniversary of marijuana prohibition in the United States on October 1, it is important to remember why marijuana was deemed illicit in the first place, and why we as Americans must open our eyes to the insidious strategy behind 75 years of failed policy and ruined lives. Marijuana laws were designed not to control marijuana, but to control the Mexican immigrants who had brought this native plant with them to the U.S. Fears over loss of jobs and of the Mexicans themselves led cities to look for ways to keep a close eye on the newcomers. In 1914, El Paso Texas became the first jurisdiction in the U.S. to ban the sale and possession of marijuana. This ban gave police the right to search, detain and question Mexican immigrants without reason, except the suspicion that they were in possession of marijuana. Folklore started to erupt about the effect that marijuana had on those who used it. As Harry Anslinger stated, “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”
Fast forward to 2012. Marijuana is still an illicit substance and the laws are still being used to justify the search, detainment and questioning of populations deemed “untrustworthy” and “suspicious” by modern society, namely the poor and young men of color. A prime example is New York’s Stop and Frisk program, which stopped nearly 700,000 people in 2011. Hailed as a strategy for removing guns and violent crime from the streets, this method of stopping and questioning “suspicious” individuals, highlights the racial inequities associated with drug laws. From 2002 to 2011, African American and Hispanic residents made up close to 90% of people stopped. This is not limited to New York. In California, African-Americans are 4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana, 12 times more likely to go to prison with a felony marijuana charge, and 3 times more likely to go to prison with a marijuana possession charge.
The strategy of using marijuana laws to stop, detain and imprison poor and minority populations must stop NOW. In the past 75 years we have seen mounting evidence of the benign nature of the marijuana plant, and its tremendous potential for medical development. But the rampant misinformation about the effects of marijuana USE is dwarfed by the lifetime of suffering that a marijuana CONVICTION can bring. In 2010, there were 853,839 marijuana arrests in the U.S., 750,591 of those were for possession. A drug conviction in America is the gift that keeps on giving. Affected individuals must face a lifetime of stigma that can prevent employment, home ownership, education, voting and the ability to be a parent. The issue of mass incarceration and the War on Drugs is featured in the new documentary, The House I Live In. In the film, Richard L. Miller, author of Drug Warriors and Their Prey, From Police Power to Police State, presents a very sinister take on the method behind the Drug War madness. Miller suggests that drug laws, such as those for marijuana are part of a process of annihilation aimed at poor and minority populations. Miller poses that drug laws are designed to identify, ostracize, confiscate, concentrate, and annihilate these populations by assigning the label of drug user, criminal, or addict, seizing property, taking away freedom and institutionalizing entire communities in our ever growing prison system.
We can stop this from happening. Marijuana was deemed illegal without acknowledging science or the will of the people. 75 years later, 50% of the population supports marijuana legalization, and families are still being torn apart and lives destroyed over the criminal sanctions associated with its use. The most vulnerable members of our society are also the targets of a prison industrial complex out of control and getting bigger every day. Someone is arrested for marijuana in the U.S. every 38 seconds, we have no time to waste, tax and regulate now.
Oregon, Colorado and Washington are all considering a more sensible and humane approach to marijuana as all three have tax and regulate initiatives on their ballots this November. This is a unique opportunity for citizens to cast a vote heard round the world, to stand up not only for the freedom to consume marijuana, but against the atrocities and human suffering that result from the criminalization of it.
Amanda Reiman PhD MSW is the Policy Manager of California for the Drug Policy Alliance