Marijuana Legalization in Black and White: The Racial Cost of the Status Quo

My friend Matt was caught smoking pot with his friends in the high school bathroom. He got a slap on the wrist and spent a night in a juvenile detention center. After paying the fines, his parents never mentioned the “incident” again. Matt went on to receive a graduate degree from a top-tier university, and now he’s a homeowner with a beautiful family and thriving career. He also happens to be white.

I met my friend Jimmy later in his life at a homeless shelter. He was arrested at a young age for carrying weed at school. This arrest helped confirm what he had seen and heard his entire life. That he would never amount to anything. That he’s poor, black, and worthless. This “crime” led to others, and now Jimmy’s a felon. Even though he’s out of prison, his felony is a life-sentence that prevents him from ever becoming a productive and contributing member of society.

While these two accounts don’t represent every experience surrounding the issue of marijuana, they are nevertheless common narratives. Given the provocative nature of this topic, it is important to begin with a couple of qualifications: This article is not an in-depth analysis of the benefits and consequences of, or the biblical argument for or against, legalizing recreational marijuana. Rather, in response to a large set of data on race, marijuana usage, and arrests, what follows is a consideration of the implications legalization may have for entire communities that have been ravaged, broken, and imprisoned by an imbalanced criminal justice system—a system that has a tendency to give preference to whiteness over blackness and privilege over poverty.

In her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander makes a strong argument for racial bias in the U.S. criminal justice system. She explains that the rhetoric of “colorblindness” has paved the way for a new racial narrative which uses the language of crime rates, criminals, and the War on Drugs, but is just as destructive as institutionalized racism in eras past. She says,

“Arguably the most important parallel between mass incarceration and Jim Crow is that both have served to define the meaning and significance of race in America. Indeed, a primary function of any racial caste system is to define the meaning of race in its time. Slavery defined what it meant to be black (a slave), and Jim Crow defined what it meant to be black (a second-class citizen). Today mass incarceration defines the meaning of blackness in America: black people, especially black men, are criminals. That is what it means to be black.”

As evidence for some of her claims, Alexander cites the following facts:

  • There are more African Americans under correctional control today—in prison or jail, on probation or parole—than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.
  • As of 2004, more African American men were disenfranchised due to felon laws than in 1870 when the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified to prohibit laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race.

She explains that young black males are shuttled from school buses to prisons to be branded as criminals and felons. Upon release they are “stripped of the very rights supposedly won in the civil rights movement,” such as the right to vote, serve on juries, access education and public benefits, and freedom from discriminatory practices in employment. Alexander asserts that once you’ve been branded a felon, “many of the old forms of discrimination that we supposedly left behind during the Jim Crow era are suddenly legal again.”

All of this is necessary context and background for the conversation over legalization. Agree or disagree with Alexander’s conclusions, the statistical data on racial bias in the criminal justice system is difficult to refute. The War on Drugs (especially its mandatory minimums) has been concentrated on poor communities with large minority populations, tearing apart families and leaving a wake of brokenness for over three decades. This concentration is glaringly unjust when brought to light with data revealing that blacks and whites tend to have very similar rates of drug use. Usage is the same, but the arrests disproportionately target impoverished black males, especially with regard to marijuana possession.

Dylan Matthews at The Washington Post highlights the black/white marijuana arrest gap in nine charts based on a 2013 report by the ACLU. Given that many drug offenders do not get a felony status from marijuana charges, it is still quite significant that nearly half of all drug arrests in 2010 were for marijuana possession:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Certainly, as Matthews mentions, “being arrested without going to jail is a lot better than getting arrested and going to jail.” But with nearly 50% of all drug arrests occurring for marijuana possession, a substantial amount of resources and manpower has been given to a “crime” that is becoming increasingly legalized across the nation—not to mention the fines, hours of community service, and expensive legal fees inflicted on the the one arrested.

One would assume, then, that these arrests for marijuana possession were representative of those who actually possess and use the drug. Here’s the ACLU’s breakdown of marijuana use by race:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you can see, marijuana usage is quite racially indiscriminate. Blacks and whites tend to use the drug at nearly the same rates (with a variance of only 1%–3%). In fact, there is greater variance in usage if we look at the issue in terms of race and age:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In every year from 2001–2010, whites aged 18–25 had a propensity to use marijuana more than blacks of the same age (with a larger variance of up to 8%). So does the 46% of drug arrests made for marijuana possession represent those who actually use? Not even close.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From 2001–2010, an African American was three-to-four-times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person. This is a staggering indictment against our criminal justice system. While whites and blacks use marijuana at similar rates, blacks are far more likely to be arrested for it. Why? Michelle Alexander’s work provides the overarching narrative necessary for addressing this issue. Many of the arrests for marijuana possession do not result in the disenfranchised felon Alexander describes as the undercaste of the United States; these arrests do, however, play into a grander racial narrative told throughout our nation. While many will argue against the legalization of marijuana because of its merits as a gateway drug, possession arrests have become a gateway to the “black male as criminal” archetype so prevalent today.

Many Christians fear legalization because marijuana is the “gateway drug,” and they are concerned for the long-term harm this may have on society. However, without legalization, marijuana is still a gateway—ushering in a disproportionate number of blacks who are then sucked into a racial narrative that, as Alexander purports, defines them and pushes them into the category of felon. Either way, then, marijuana is a gateway—either to more drug use, to criminal life, or both. While it may seem quite simple that Christians should be against the legalization of this drug, especially if it leads to harder drug use, are we willing to accept that there may be serious costs to its prohibition as well? We must be willing to push back against all forms of brokenness and injustice, for all people. If marijuana is not legalized, we are left with the injustice of a racial narrative that is skewed to profile blacks as criminals for the same crimes whites commit with apparent impunity.

In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander states, “The fate of millions of people—indeed the future of the black community itself—may depend on the willingness of those who care about racial justice to re-examine their basic assumptions about the role of the criminal justice system in our society.” While there is plenty of room for varying opinions on legalizing marijuana, and while legalization may or may not be a small step forward in dismantling mass incarceration, let us not be fooled into thinking this isn’t a racial justice issue. The disparities that currently exist in arrests for possession are symptomatic of a much larger illness that has plagued our country before it was even founded—that of racial superiority and inferiority.

Alexander implicates the Christian community in her statement because we are those “who care about racial justice.” We care about justice because we serve a just and righteous God. There’s no shortage of concern among our ranks over the effects of poverty and fatherlessness in poor minority communities. We are eager to promote mentoring programs, food banks, pregnancy counseling, emergency relief, and a myriad of other ministries. We do these things because deep down we want brokenness to be repaired. We long for Jesus to fulfill His promise to make all things new. While I thank God for the success my friend Matt found after his juvenile experimentation with weed, I wish my friend Jimmy had the same opportunity and expectations to walk away unscathed.

With the issue of marijuana use, we can agree and disagree on whether legalization is the best way forward, but move forward we must. Let’s begin by considering that mass incarceration and the unjust discrimination in our criminal justice system is the pool that feeds many of the social ills we address. From there, we can seek God to purify the streams that falsely create racial narratives which dishonor God’s people and pollute our desire for justice.

photo credit: Lollyman via photopin cc

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