Has the new year started out on a high or a drugged-out low? The decriminalization of marijuana in Washington and Colorado has been heralded as the end of prohibition — and alternately lamented as the rock-bottom of America’s morality.
But few have acknowledged the obvious: The media’s images of mostly scruffy-looking, smiling people lined up to score some newly legal dope are overwhelmingly white.
Now imagine the reaction — from the media, your mother and the Justice Department — if these lines were filled with young Hispanics or African Americans with cornrows, do-rags and sagging pants? We can almost hear the conversation shifting from warnings about the health risks of "the munchies" to panic over marijuana as a "gateway drug" — and the violence, gang activity and criminality it sows.
What’s happening in Washington and Colorado isn’t a shift so much as a formalization of what has long been a reality: If you’re white, you can do drugs with relative impunity. No one law or state initiative will be the nail in the coffin of America’s failed war on drugs — and sadly, black and Hispanic Americans will continue to get locked up while others are getting high.
According to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union, there were 8 million marijuana arrests in the United States from 2001 to 2010. These arrests were anything but colorblind: Eighty-eight percent were for possession, a crime for which black Americans are almost four times more likely to be arrested than whites.
While white and black Americans use marijuana at roughly similar rates — though whites ages 18 to 25 consistently surpass their black peers — arrest rates are nowhere near comparable. As of 2005, according to the American Bar Association, African Americans represented 14 percent of drug users (and of the population as a whole), yet accounted for 34 percent of all drug arrests and 53 percent of those sent to prison for a drug offense.
It is not a coincidence that marijuana has been decriminalized in Washington and Colorado, but not in Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Iowa, Pennsylvania, California, Indiana or Louisiana — the seven states with the highest rates of incarcerated black men. In parts of Louisiana, which arrests 13,000 people each year for marijuana possession, black people are 11 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana.
It’s not surprising that college campuses, bastions of white privilege, have been at the forefront of decriminalization efforts. In a 2007 study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, researchers found that marijuana use among college students had more than doubled from 1993 to 2005.
The same study found that 4 percent of college students smoke marijuana 20 times a month, yet the Drug Enforcement Agency has not conducted drug sweeps of fraternity houses, nor have stop-and-frisk tactics been deployed on college campuses.
We hope that we will be wrong and that recent legal shifts mark the end of a racially divided war on drugs. But while Colorado and Washington certainly aren’t the whitest states in the nation — Colorado is 14th and Washington 26th — history has shown that decriminalization, like the war on drugs itself, remains colored by racism.
In 2009, Massachusetts decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana. While this resulted in a decline in overall arrests, racial disparities continued. And although New York passed a decriminalization bill in 1977 — making possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana punishable by a $100 fine for the first offense — the NYPD still arrested about 440,000 people from 2002 to 2012, with 85 percent being black and Latino even though young whites use marijuana at higher rates.
So forgive us if we are not ready to celebrate the most recent moves to decriminalize marijuana. Decriminalization may lead to fewer arrests of African Americans and Latinos. But the consequences of past unjust arrests give us pause. And as state budgets are slashed and taxes are cut in Colorado and Washington, and throughout the country, decriminalization is tied to states’ desire to cash in on the marijuana market. It’s not about ending the war on drugs.
After 40 years, the war on drugs has locked up millions of African Americans and Latinos; it has destroyed families and communities. The decriminalization movement, and the acceptance of medical marijuana, do little to stop such damage.
If you listened to politicians, commentators and activists, you would think America has undergone a dramatic change in drug-control policy in a few weeks’ time that will usher in a new day for race, crime and punishment. We are unconvinced.
People with black and brown skin get very little leeway to experiment or self-medicate with drugs. When they do use marijuana, they’re much more likely to be viewed as criminal. For white America, being young and stupid, and having the ability to experiment with drugs and laugh about it later — as David Brooks, Bill Clinton, stop-and-frisk defender Michael Bloomberg and plenty of others have done — is the embodiment of privilege.
Breaking the law is often easily erased with a breath mint, a high-priced lawyer, or just a nod and wink from the criminal justice system. The war on drugs has left white America relatively unscathed.
Stacey Patton is a senior enterprise reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education. David J. Leonard is an associate professor and chairman of the department of critical culture, gender and race studies at Washington State University. They wrote this for The Washington Post.