The battle over Proposition 19

September 1, 2010

Helen Redmond provides the background on a key initiative on the California ballot.

ON NOVEMBER 2, Proposition 19--the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010--will be on the ballot in California. If it passes, it will allow adults 21 years or older to possess, cultivate or transport marijuana for personal use.

The passage of Proposition 19 would strike a serious blow against the drug warriors who have been locking up marijuana smokers with impunity for decades. Arrests for small-scale possession and distribution of pot are the leading edge of the "War on Drugs": Nearly half of all drug arrests in 2008--some 750,000--were for marijuana use.

Marijuana busts are easy, a guaranteed moneymaker for the judicial system (think of the court costs and fines) and a steady supplier of prisoners for California's sprawling, for-profit prison industry. Adding a dimension of racism to the question, African Americans are three and four times more likely to be arrested and convicted of marijuana offenses.

MARIJUANA PROHBITION in the U.S. has deep roots in racism. From 1930 until 1962, Harry J. Anslinger headed the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Anslinger launched a national crusade against marijuana and used a hysteria about "reefer madness" and open racism to pressure politicians to pass a series of laws making marijuana illegal.

A medical marijuana dispensary in Valencia, Calif.
A medical marijuana dispensary in Valencia, Calif.

Anslinger's racist rants alleged that marijuana made Black people violent and insane, and encouraged race-mixing. He concocted deliberate lies to stoke racism: "Colored students at the University of Minnesota partying with white female students, smoking and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result: pregnancy." He also believed: "Reefer makes darkies think they're as good as white men."

Anslinger's campaign against cannabis even attacked famous Black musicians and the groundbreaking new genres of music they created: "There are 100,00 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are negroes," he ranted. "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."

Today, Anslinger's racism reads like a sick joke, but in Jim Crow America of the 1930s, his ideas got a wide hearing.

Fast forward to "post-racial" America: A new report released by the Drug Policy Alliance titled "Targeting Blacks for Marijuana: Possession Arrests of African Americans in California, 2004-08," shows the racism of Harry Anslinger is still alive and kicking in the disproportionate enforcement of drug laws against African Americans. Among the findings:

-- In every one of the 25 largest counties in California, Blacks are arrested for marijuana possession at higher rates than whites, typically at double, triple or even quadruple the rate of whites, yet government studies consistently find that young blacks use marijuana at lower rates than young whites.

In Los Angeles County, with nearly 10 million residents and over a quarter of California's population, Blacks are arrested at over triple the rate of whites.

Blacks are less than 10 percent of LA County's population, but are 30 percent of the people arrested for marijuana possession.

Criminal records for marijuana possession severely limit the life chances of the poor, young, and especially of young Blacks and Latinos.

The report confirms what African Americans have known for decades--the War on Drugs is a war on them. It is directly responsible for the explosion in the number of Black people incarcerated. The legalization of marijuana is an issue of racial justice.

The politically connected and well-funded law enforcement authorities--which have fought tooth and nail to deny medical marijuana to sick and dying patients and continue to raid medical marijuana dispensaries--oppose Proposition 19. They've partnered with conservative organizations and churches to create a campaign of fear and hysteria based on outright lies and distortions about the effects of marijuana.

Among the most dishonest assertions are that marijuana use causes permanent mental illness, is highly addictive and is a "gateway" drug. The gateway theory claims smoking marijuana leads to the use of "harder drugs" like crack cocaine and heroin, but the fact is that the vast majority of marijuana users never use any other illegal drugs.

The California Democratic Party has adopted a neutral position on Proposition 19, but Democrats are split on its passage. Jerry Brown who is running for governor opposes Proposition 19 and is working with law enforcement officials to defeat it.

Brown is a hypocrite. As governor of California in 1975, he signed a law decriminalizing marijuana, citing many of the same reasons that supporters of Proposition 19 use today. And studies show that after Governor Brown decriminalized marijuana, it didn't lead to an increase in pot smoking.

Now candidate Brown is peddling classic drug-war lies in order to get elected: "If the whole society starts getting stoned, we're going to be even less competitive. And we're going to have more broken families and more angry husbands and wives."

THE FIGHT to legalize marijuana in California has an important ally--the NAACP. Alice Huffman, President of the California state conference of the NAACP, declared, "There is a strong racial component that must be considered when we investigate how the marijuana laws are applied to people of color. The burden has fallen disproportionately on people of color, and on young black men in particular."

Two law enforcement organizations have broken with their brethren in blue and publicly endorsed Proposition 19--the National Black Police Association (NBPA) and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) has also endorsed Proposition 19. Union leaders believe its passage could create thousands of jobs in agriculture, health care and retail sales. Some estimates claim that Prop 19 will generate between 60,000 and 110,000 new jobs.

The Northern California District Council of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) backed Proposition 19. Its statement concluded: "People's lives are ruined for a lifetime because of criminal records incurred from using a drug that is used recreationally by people from all walks of life. Those criminal records fall disproportionately on the backs of workers, poor people and people of color."

Perhaps one of the most telling signs that bodes well for Proposition 19--the Oakland City Council approved an ordinance allowing the industrial production of marijuana on four, large-scale parcels of land. The city of Berkeley also wants to grow marijuana for the market, and there is an ordinance about this on the ballot in November.

A recent poll by EMC Research of California voters found that 76 percent agree "marijuana is already being used. We need a system to control its use"--and 74 percent agree that "marijuana should be controlled like alcohol and tobacco."

The passage of Prop 19 would have an important impact in Central and Latin America. The U.S. dictates drug policy in those regions, and interdiction and prohibition of drugs has been a complete failure. Meanwhile, the death toll from the drug war has been staggering--in Mexico, 28,000 people have been killed in the last four years.

In an interview with W Radio de México, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos pointed out that if a measure like Prop 19 passes in the largest state in a country that is the largest importer of illegal drugs, it will be hard to "explain to indigenous Colombians who grow marijuana that it is illegal, their crops will be destroyed, and they'll go to prison when it's legal to consume marijuana in the U.S."

Despite the fact that a majority of Californians want to legalize marijuana and believe it's common sense to stop locking up recreational pot smokers, the drug warriors and prison operators who stand in Harry J. Anslinger's long, ugly shadow won't give up without a fight.

Drug legalization threatens their power and profits. Anyone who wants to see racial justice and human rights front and center should hope that Proposition 19 passes.

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