The surest way to ensure the continued abuse of people of color under the auspices of the drug war is to reduce or eliminate any corresponding threat to white Americans. This seems to me to be such a fundamental of realpolitik in the United States that I’m still a little bit astonished that The Nation, in a recent assessment of marijuana reform efforts and racial bias, can’t see any forest from the trees.
Not a single fact about marijuana use and the racial bias that law enforcement exhibits with regard to the drug is askew, of course. I agree with the article’s author, Dr. Carl Hart of Columbia University, on his entire statistical premise:
“Consider a recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union showing that black people are two to over seven times more likely to be arrested for pot possession than their white counterparts, despite the fact that both groups use marijuana at similar rates,” notes Dr. Hart. “These disparities held up even when researchers controlled for household income. It’s about race, not class.”
Full agreement as far as that goes. But there is, I believe, a statistical equivocation in the ensuing paragraph:
“Each year, there are more than 700,000 marijuana arrests, which account for more than half of all drug arrests. And now, largely because of the selective targeting of African-American males, one in three black boys born today will spend time in prison if we don’t take action to end this type of discrimination.”
Whoa. While I am entirely aware that marijuana arrests account for over 50 percent of all drug arrests, and while African-American and Latino suspects are certainly arrested at disproportionate rates despite comparable white marijuana use is certain, I believe that the extraordinary rates of incarceration of African-Americans — or all Americans, for that matter — is the result of overall drug enforcement of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and other hard drugs.
This is not to say that there are not thousands of incarcerated for marijuana arrests, especially at the state level. In some states, draconian enforcement of marijuana statutes, especially coupled with repeat-offender statutes, has certainly resulted in the imprisonment of Americans, and likely those unfortunates are dispropotionately people of color. But as many urban and high-population states have for the last several decades been liberalizing marijuana laws and reducing or eliminating prison penalties on the drug, the greater share of those incarcerated – and not merely arrested — under U.S. drug statutes has been comprised of hard-drug defendants. And those number in the hundreds of thousands.
Certainly, marijuana enforcement is an opportunity for law enforcement to profile, harass and penalize minorities. And certainly, a marijuana arrest can be used to establish a criminal history, achieve probationary verdicts and put people of color under the control of the criminal justice system. To the extent that defendants opt for suspended sentences and then are rearrested, or find themselves arrested in that minority of states with retrograde marijuana codes, incarcerative outcomes do occur. But Dr. Hart’s linkage of the ACLU report of racial bias in marijuana enforcement to the appalling percentage of African-American males who will serve prison time needs to be carefully uncoupled.
One in three African-American boys born today will be imprisoned at some point not because of marijuana enforcement, but because of the entirety of the drug war — and only by dealing with all of drug enforcement and its subtext of racial and class control will that trend ever abate, much less be reversed. Only by addressing political reform to the use or trafficking of those drugs that drive the majority of prison sentences for drug crimes will the country begin to address itself to the mechanism that has put 2.3 million Americans behind bars and made us the jailingest society in human history.
Which brings me back to my initial political worry when it comes to marijuana reform, which, regrettably, has been over-simplified and mischaracterized in some quarters as it volleys about on the internets. Here, again:
Yes, marijuana is among the least dangerous prohibited substances in the drug world. Yes, any continuing criminal arrests for its use are dysfunctional and draconian. Yes, as with any drug law, such arrests target people of color disproportionately. But accept as well that marijuana is also the most basic and fundamental place where white, middle-class and affluent America intersects with the drug war. It is the place where many, many white families of economic means and political relevance encounter even the most moderate risk to their status and future. For the majority of that cohort, it is the only place where the drug war’s rubber actually hits any stretch of suburban blacktop.
Of course, it is impossible to argue against the immediate practicalities of liberalizing marijuana use and reducing the criminal penalties such. In a country with our levels of alcohol use, no one should be incarcerated or even criminally arrested for smoking weed. But in so liberalizing this single sphere of our national drug war, the actual political isolation of the poor, and of poor people of color especially, will deepen. Having removed much of the white, middle-class interaction with drug enforcement from the equation, those who are championing marijuana reform and ignoring the overall disaster of the drug war will be perpetuating the fundamental and continuing injustice.
Think not? Consider the draft.
Yes, the military draft of the Vietnam era — as it was implemented, replete with college deferments — fell disproportionately on the working-class and the poor, and therefore on young men of color. And yes, the transition away from the logic of selective service to an all-volunteer military consigned any mandatory enforcement of that disparity to the ash heap. It also, as a matter of military practicality, made the volunteer military a much more committed and effective institution, by all accounts, and no one at the Pentagon will be speaking again any time soon of any return to a compulsory draft.
But the fundamental political change in the end of compulsory military service has been the grand departure of our most politically influential class from any organized opposition to military interventions. Once middle-class and upper-class children were secure from any required military service and the corresponding risks from attritive wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, the U.S. government had effectively freed itself from any requirement of widespread popular support for maintaining wars of choice, regardless of casualty rates. The departure of the draft has made U.S. overseas interventions far more likely to be initiated and far more likely to be maintained, even as the overall popularity of the intervention wanes.
If white folk — and middle-class and affluent white folk at that — aren’t directly threatened by a policy or program, the chance of getting them out in the street, or even actively engaging with the government in any campaign for reform is minimized. So, too, with the drug war.
Mandatory minimum sentences and the elimination of federal parole, three-time-loser laws and draconian sentencing matrices were all well and good when the presumed targets were the underclass, the feared drug gangs of inner city America. Only in the past decade — as prison populations have soared, methamphetamine has entrenched itself among whites in the American West, and the shrugging economy has sent more and more of the white working-class and underclass to the corner — have white folk been swept in greater numbers into the national dragnet, resulting in growing disenchantment with the drug war across the racial spectrum. Yet even still, for many white families, marijuana remains the singular and most obvious point of vulnerability to America’s obsession with drug prohibition. Eliminate the drug war’s most fundamental perceived threat to the white midde class and the air is going to rush out of the growing national opposition with the drug war so fast that our heads will spin.
Is that argument enough to eschew the very rational removal of marijuana enforcement from the drug war arsenal? Maybe not. It’s hard to leave those absurd laws intact when an opportunity exists to mitigate the damage done to those defendants — black and white — who are being prosecuted, however more modestly than with prohibitions against harder drugs.
But the least that people of goodwill can do is to stop pretending that forward movement on marijuana alone is anything less than an accommodation with an existing war of social control that is being waged disproportionately on the urban poor and is utilizing the prohibitions against harder drugs for the greater share of its incarcerative dynamic. Marijuana is not the core reason for our crowded prisons, and the reform of marijuana laws is, at best, triage for a failed and dystopic system that will be given another lease on life once the politically relevant portion of white America is given a pass. Removing weed from the overall equation will, in the end, consign increasingly-isolated poor people of color to the brutalities of the drug war for the foreseeable future. The game will still be the game for them, and a cruel and rigged game it will remain.