A new poll finds that for the first time in over forty years, a clear majority of people are now in favor of the legalization of marijuana. But will we see legalization in our lifetime?
The survey, which was conducted by Pew Research Center, found that 52 percent of people nationwide favor legalizing pot, while 42 percent oppose it. Support for legalization has increased 11 points since 2010. Meanwhile, only 12 percent supported legalization in 1969, and 84 percent were against the policy.
The Pew poll also found that 72 percent of Americans believe that moves by the feds to enforce marijuana laws are not worth the cost. And 60 percent of those surveyed say the federal government should not enforce marijuana laws in states that allow legal use.
Politicians Need to Catch Up with Voters
Younger people are most in favor of legalization, including 65 percent of Millenials (born since 1980), 54 percent of Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980), and 50 percent of Baby Boomers.
“It’s time for politicians to catch up to the voters on this issue. Not too long ago, it was widely accepted in political circles that elected officials who wanted to get re-elected needed to act ‘tough’ on drugs and go out of their way to support the continued criminalization of marijuana,” said Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority. “The opposite is quickly becoming true. A majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana, and you’re going to start seeing more politicians running toward our movement instead of away from it, just as we’ve seen happen with marriage equality recently.”
As is the case with same-sex marriage, the tide seems to be turning on public attitudes on marijuana. For the black community, with so many young people incarcerated for possessing small quantities of the drug, the stakes are high.
The War on Drugs Appears to Be Lost
Regardless of political persuasion, many people have concluded the war on drugs has been an abysmal failure. Further, this war has fueled the nation’s prison boom, making the U.S. the world’s largest jailer at around 2.5 million prisoners. More than 60 percent of these inmates are racial and ethnic minorities, and the drug war has devastated poor, black and Latino communities.
In recent years, about half of people in federal prisons and one-fifth of state prisoners are serving time due to drug offenses. Marijuana-related violations account for 12 percent of drug offenders behind bars. Voices in the black community are speaking out.
“It’s just the stupidest law possible,” said actor Morgan Freeman. “You’re just making criminals out of people who aren’t engaged in criminal activity. And we’re spending zillions of dollars trying to fight a war we can’t win! We could make zillions, just legalize it and tax it like we do liquor. It’s stupid.”
“These flawed drug policies that have been mostly enforced in African-American communities must be stopped and replaced with evidenced-based practices that address the root causes of drug use and abuse in America,” said Ben Jealous of the NAACP.
“I’m going to battle on this,” said Newark mayor Cory Booker. “We’re going to start doing it the gentlemanly way. And then we’re going to do the civil disobedience way. Because this is absurd. I’m talking about marches. I’m talking about sit-ins at the state capitol. I’m talking about whatever it takes… The drug war is causing crime. It is just chewing up young black men. And it’s killing Newark.”
States Start the Ball Rolling on Decriminalization
Colorado and Washington broke new ground when voters in those states legalized recreational marijuana in the November election—a first in the nation. States such as Oregon, California, Nevada, Rhode Island, Maine, Alaska and Vermont are likely to follow.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced legislation in January to decriminalize possession of small amounts of weed, a proposal which Rev. Al Sharpton of the National Action Network and MSNBC said was “a step in the right direction.”
Typically, marijuana arrests are a perverse byproduct of stop-and-frisk arrests, a policy which was struck down by a federal judge absent specific cause by policy to search a person. Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg came to office 11 years ago, 440,000 people have been arrested on marijuana possession, the most heavily charged offense ever.
“We have been convinced, given the data, that Stop and Frisk does not alleviate crime but instead increases the racial profiling exposure of mostly young blacks and Hispanics,” Sharpton said in a statement.
Pot Putting Black Men Behind Bars
In 2011, over 50,000 arrests were made in New York City for small amounts of marijuana. Half of the people arrested were under the age of 25, less than 10% had a criminal record, and 82 percent were black or Latino.
This practice of stopping black and Latino young men has nothing to do with fighting crime, experts say, but has everything to do with racial profiling. The Center for Constitutional Rights filed the case of Floyd vs. City of New York, which alleges unreasonable, unjustified, race-based stop-and-frisk tactics against young men of color by the New York City Police Department.
An expert in the Floyd case, Dr. Jeffrey Fagan–professor of law and public health at Columbia University and a Yale research scholar–found that race was the guiding factor in many police stops, rather than whether there was a reasonable suspicion the suspect committed a crime, or was in possession of a weapon or drug contraband such as marijuana. In nearly half of documented stops, police justify their actions based on the vague term “furtive stops.” Meanwhile, police made over half of the stops on the grounds that it was a “high crime area,” even when crime in the given neighborhood was lower than average.
“Accordingly, the NYPD stop and frisk tactics produce seizures of offenders, weapons or contraband that are well below what we might expect were we to stop citizens at random,” Fagan reported. “In other words, the NYPD continues to produce ‘hit rates’ that not only are no better than chance, but appear to be far worse.”
What Will Obama Do?
But given the evidence of the harm caused by the current criminalization of marijuana, not to mention the Pew study, will President Obama act? Former president Jimmy Carter has stated he is in favor of decriminalizing marijuana, and even advocated for it during his presidency, and Bill Clinton has all but supported such a policy on the grounds the war on drugs has not worked.
And while Obama came to office with promises of reforming the nation’s drug policy, he simply has not delivered in the eyes of his critics, and has not utilized the power of his office to change bad policy.
In December 2012, Obama told Barbara Walters that he does not support widespread legalization “at this point,” but sought a middle ground given shifting public sentiment and fiscal concerns. The president said, “it would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational [marijuana] users in states that have determined that it’s legal.”
“The president’s statement about not targeting individual marijuana users doesn’t mark a shift in policy. The federal government rarely goes after individual users,” Angell said. Angell believes Obama is finding an easy way out and attempting to pass the buck to Congress, when the nation’s chief executive actually has the power to change the law through the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.
“The real question is whether the Obama administration will try to prevent voter-approved marijuana sales systems from being enacted or if they will force individual users to buy marijuana from the black market, where much of the profits go to cartels and gangs that kill people,’ he added.
So will the president evolve on drug policy, much in the way he evolved on the issue of gay marriage? Time will tell, but he certainly has an opening, not to mention a second term and no reelection worries hanging over his head.
David A. Love
Republished from The Grio with permission.
Monday, 8 April 2013