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Opinion: Legalizing Marijuana Would End War on NJ's Minority Communities

potter
Credit: Amanda Brown
R. William Potter

On January 24, State Sen. Nicholas P. Scutari announced plans to introduce what may prove to be the most important civil rights enactments in New Jersey in many decades. Scutari’s bill aims to legalize and regulate the adult use and sale of marijuana. If enacted, this bill would end the war on this drug, which 42 percent of adults admit to having smoked -- including presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton (although Clinton claims he never inhaled).

Scutari’s effort follows the lead of two states, Colorado and Washington, where voters last year approved ballot initiatives to legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana in a manner comparable to alcohol or tobacco. His bill also comes hard on the heels of Gov. Chris Christie’s January inaugural address in which he decried “the failed war on drugs,” but stopped short of endorsing legalization or even decriminalization.

Scutari’s bill should come as no great surprise. Indeed, the wonder is that it has taken so long. Legalization of this native-growing hemp plant, “cannabis sativa,” if it happens, should bring an end to one of the darkest chapters in American history: The mass arrest, prosecution, and incarceration of black, Hispanic, and poor young men who crowd our courthouses and prisons and, even if they are spared jail time, find their way up the ladder of success forever blocked by a nonviolent drug crime conviction.

Let’s look at some numbers. In 2012, there were 749,825 arrests nationwide for all types of marijuana drug violations -- possession, use, sale, and cultivation. And of that huge number of lives upended by coercive state action, the vast majority -- 88 percent -- were for possession only. That’s 658,231 people detained, searched, and cuffed by police officers, before being hauled before a judge and dumped into jail until posting bail.

In New Jersey we find much the same story. In 2010 there were some 22,000 residents arrested for simple possession, according to data released by Roseanne Scotti, director of the New Jersey Drug Policy Alliance. “The time has come to tax, regulate and legalize marijuana for personal use,” Scotti added in a prepared statement of support for the Scutari bill.

National surveys have consistently shown that whites use illegal drugs at roughly the same rate as blacks and Hispanics. But people of color are at least three times more likely to be arrested and more than twice as likely as whites to be incarcerated if convicted of a nonviolent drug offense.

The resulting toll on minority families and their communities can hardly be exaggerated. Even after they serve their time, if only a night in jail, or are ordered to pay a small fine, they are forever branded with the mark of legalized discrimination. They can be denied the right to vote, instantly foreclosed from job opportunities, kicked out of public housing, and rendered ineligible for government-backed college loans.

All this for smoking a “weed” that President Obama recently conceded is less dangerous to a person’s health than drinking alcoholic beverages or smoking cigarettes.

Mass Incarceration

In her masterly book, “The New Jim Crow” (subtitled “Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”), law professor Michelle Alexander recounts the damning and overwhelming evidence of systematic discrimination in the police enforcement of anti-drug laws and, just as important, their debilitating aftereffects:

“The impact of the drug war has been astounding,” she writes. “In less than 30 years, the U.S. penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million, with drug convictions accounting for the majority of the increase. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, dwarfing the rates of every developed country, even surpassing those in highly repressive regimes like Russia, China, and Iran. In Germany, 93 people are in prison for every 100,000 adults and children. In the U.S., the rate is roughly eight items that, or 750 per 100,000.”

Beyond the numbers, “the racial dimension is its most striking feature” of the failed war on drugs. “No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities. The U.S. imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa at the height of apartheid.” As a result, Alexander notes, “it is estimated that three out of four young black men and nearly all those in the poorest neighborhoods can expect to serve time in prison.” It is well past time to suggest that ending the war on drugs -- more accurately, a war on certain drug users -- should be at or near the number one item on the agenda of every civil rights (make that human rights) organization that is committed to ending injustice in America. The NAACP, CORE, and predominantly African-American church congregations -- among many others -- should support the Scutari initiative with all the persuasive power they can muster.

As for those who may remain indifferent to these appeals to civil rights and justice, they would do well to consider the economic cost to taxpayers. According to data collected by the National Drug Policy Alliance (NDPA), U.S. taxpayers annually shell out in excess of $51 billion arresting and prosecuting 1,550,000 people for various nonviolent drug charges. And that sum does not include the annual cost to incarcerate those sentenced to time behind bars, estimated at $30,000 - 40,000 per inmate.

Not only could these public funds be far better spent on real priorities -- such as repairing our nation’s sagging infrastructure -- the nation is missing out on lost revenues. “If currently illegal drugs were taxed at rates comparable to those on alcohol and tobacco,” estimated the NPDA, it would amount to $46.7 billion. When you add the direct cost of continuing to fight the unwinnable war on drugs to the missing tax revenues, there’s the tidy sum of $97.7 billion in yearly tax dollars wasted.

Which brings us back to Scutari’s legislation (not yet introduced as of this writing). What are the prospects it will pass any time soon? Probably not great, mostly due to likely political opposition from self-styled conservative legislators. Have a Scotch on the rocks after work? Fine by them, if not taken to excess. But let a black man get caught with a single marijuana joint and it’s a one-way ticket into the criminal justice system.

It’s time for conservatives, mostly Republicans, to apply their anti-government rhetoric and pro-freedom philosophy intelligently. If so, they would quickly climb aboard the legalization band wagon and push for it to become law. It makes no sense for them to oppose strict environmental regulation of energy sources needed to protect this threatened planet from the consequences of global climate change while also supporting the war on drugs.

So we might ask reluctant lawmakers: Why should government continue its costly and failed effort to control a person’s choice of recreational drug, and do so by reserving punishment largely to young black, Hispanic and poor youth who are singled out for enforcement?

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