Recreational marijuana is now legal in Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Colorado and D.C. (sort of). And medical marijuana is legal in one form or another in another 23 or so states. But across the country many people continue to be jailed for marijuana related offenses, and a disproportionate number of those people are African-Americans. In the DC area, African-Americans arrested for marijuana rose from 3,228 to 4,908 in the past two years.
The statistics tell a story of police targeting African Americans everywhere from Washington to Washington DC. Ezekiel Edwards, the director of the A.C.L.U.’s Criminal Law Reform Project states that “we found that in virtually every county in the country, police have wasted taxpayer money enforcing marijuana laws in a racially biased manner.” According to the United States Department of Justice, the United States spends over a billion dollars on marijuana related crimes a year, with a large chunk of this money going towards prosecuting and imprisoning people for consumption or small sales. If you can afford a good lawyer and are able to make a good impression with the police or with a judge, the illegality of marijuana is going to be less of a problem for you than for someone who cannot. Though legalization will obviously not fix our nation’s racial problems, it would be a step in that direction.
Beyond enforcement, unfair marijuana rules are taxing our prison system. We incarcerate more people per capita than any other developed country, giving us a quarter of the world’s total prisoners. Of these prisoners in jail for drugs, 1 out of 8 are there for marijuana related offenses, making many prisons overcrowded. To help fill this gap in space, the United States is starting to shift towards private prisons. As incarceration rates skyrocket, the private prison industry expands at exponential rates, holding even more people in its prisons and jails, and generating massive profits. Since private prisons are private for profit businesses, the more people incarcerated, the greater their profits. Putting profits into incarceration incentivizes increasing inmate numbers, regardless of the sentence they actually deserve.
The current enforcement of outdated marijuana laws across the United States also means that resources are diverted away from more important uses. The New York Times reports that “in 2011, there were more arrests for marijuana possession than for all violent crimes put together.” When money is tight, is a marijuana centered war against young African-Americans really the best way to focus taxpayer dollars? Ignoring the money at stake, is this a good long-term choice for our country?
Legalizing marijuana is only half the battle. Decriminalization and working to reduce or eliminate prison sentences for those convicted of marijuana related crimes is just as important. State by state legalization means that a poor African American man could in one state be going off to prison for doing exactly what a more privileged entrepreneur profits from in a different state. Legalization also does nothing for those already in jail for cannabis crimes. One obvious fix would be legislation to release everyone incarcerated on marijuana possession charges. Most everyone who advocates for legalization would be fine with this, but what about prisoners who engaged in large scale marijuana sales?
In DC, protesters recently chanted “Legalization Ends Discrimination.” They may be on to something.
What do you think?
This post was written by Katherine Schroeder, an undergraduate intern with our firm and a senior International Studies major (in the Honors Program) at the University of Washington.