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Live from Burlington

Amnesty for Anslinger’s Lawbreakers

by RON JACOBS

The first time I was busted for weed was in Berkeley, CA. I was sitting in a doorway off of Telegraph Avenue. A couple friends and I were almost finished burning a joint when two beat cops appeared across the street. They spotted us and swaggered through the traffic on Dwight Way to where we sat, freshly stoned. A few minutes later, after exchanging words, IDs, and all of our pockets getting emptied, I was in handcuffs in the back of a police cruiser. At the time, possession of less than an ounce of weed was merely a misdemeanor in California, but the cops still used each bust as an excuse to throw the accused in their jail for a few hours while they wrote out the ticket. It was harassment plain and simple.

I would be busted for pot a few more times in my life. Usually, if the charges stuck, I would end up doing several hours of community service where I would smoke pot and then go pick up trash in a park or along a road. The absurdity of the laws against marijuana was never clearer than while doing community service stoned.

Recent moves to legalize pot, including actual legalization in Washington and Colorado, have changed the conversation regarding marijuana use in the United States. It seems like only those with a severe hatred of the plant (for whatever reason) consider it something that should remain as illegal as it has been since the days of Harry Anslinger. The rest of America is either smoking it, ignoring it or trying to figure out a way to make money from it.

One of the criticisms of the trend toward marijuana legalization is the appearance that it is mostly white skinned folks who are benefitting from these changes. While there are not enough statistics to verify this conclusion in those states where marijuana has been legalized, the fact that police in major US cities continue to stop and frisk mostly Black and brown males under the pretense of looking for weed lends credence to the perception.

Into this situation steps a Vermont-based initiative (BTVGreen) designed to address not only the racial and class inequities prevalent in marijuana arrests and prosecutions, but also to obtain amnesty for everyone ever found guilty of a marijuana related crime. Founded by a variety of activists, some with organizing histories dating back to the 1960s and others considerably younger, it is the hope of this initiative to end marijuana prohibition and then extinguish the budget wasted to maintain that prohibition. As any observer can tell you, part of that budget is spent on military hardware and surveillance equipment used by law enforcement to track and arrest those smoking and selling marijuana. Albert Petrarca wrote me in an email regarding a voter referendum calling on Burlington, Vermont to address the issue of amnesty for marijuana offenses: “This militarization of domestic police squads began well before 9-11. I think we should speak (in our outreach around amnesty) that the origins are tied to the War on Drugs. Ferguson, Missouri is just the steroidal version of what’s been going on a regular basis in communities of color under the guise of prohibition. That Ferguson was turned overnight into Tahir Square in Cairo has clearly shocked the nation. The subtext of our amnesty campaign is social and racial justice. The community may be even more open to it after Ferguson.”

Over the course of two volumes (The Strength of the Pack and The Strength of the Wolf) documenting the creation of the Drug Enforcement Agency and the “War on Drugs,” author Doug Valentine discussed the issue of the militarization of US police forces as a result of this so-called war. Furthermore, his elaboration on the corruption of individuals and entire police agencies includes many more tales of such chicanery that might surprise one less jaded than me. One of  Valentine’s primary contentions is that the war on drugs is beneficial to two main groups—those who sell drugs illegally and those police agencies who investigate, spy on, arrest and kill those who sell drugs illegally. Secondary beneficiaries include the corporations who make the hardware (and software) used by those police agencies and those they chase down.

Like the system of incarceration that has put millions of US residents in jail, on probation and parole, the law enforcement elements in the war on drugs tend to focus primarily on poor communities of color. Those who label this reality as an extension of slavery and its aftermath are more correct than middle class (mostly white) Americans want to believe. The fact that so many prisoners are in prison because of their role, however small, in the illegal drug trade lends weight to the argument that the war on drugs is about keeping poor people down. The relation to US slavery becomes clearer when the racial breakdown of those in prison shows a disproportionate percentage of Black males doing time. When one also considers that most drug arrests have to do with marijuana, the link between incarceration, racism, the war on drugs and marijuana legalization becomes all too clear.

The aforementioned initiative in Burlington is an attempt to bring up these issues in a manner that doesn’t just acknowledge them, but also attempts to remedy them. Amnesty for all marijuana related offenses is an intelligent step towards ending the devastating effects of the War on Drugs and marijuana prohibition itself. Vermont is as good of a place as any to ignite the call.

Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of  The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden.  His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press.  He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.