Two friends debated the merits of California’s pending referendum on pot legalization as they smoked marijuana through a hi-tech electric pipe while sitting inside a swank house where floor-to-ceiling windows artistically framed the glittering night skyline of this city known for its iconic Golden Gate Bridge and its libertarian attitude towards lifestyles.
Both friends vigorously oppose America’s pot prohibition condemning it as ineffective and fiscally wasteful. Prohibition nationwide costs billions of dollars per year for just enforcement which in 2008 produced 872,721 arrests, with most of those arrests (89 percent) being for mere possession.
However, these friends hold sharply different opinions on California’s Prop 19 with one firmly supporting this ballot measure to legalize possession of an ounce of pot for personal use among adults while the other strongly opposes it.
The supporter sees Prop 19 as reducing government intervention in his life while his friend fears increased government/corporate entanglements with his favored intoxicant.
If approved by voters during the November 2010 election California would become the first state to fully legalize marijuana for recreational use among adults. California and over a dozen other states currently allow medicinal use of marijuana with authorization from a doctor.
The differing opinions among those two pot smokers – both professionals, one owning two cutting-edge software development companies – highlight interesting dynamics swirling around Prop 19.
“In urban areas like Los Angeles, Sacramento, SanFran/Oakland, etc. support is overwhelming but in many Republican countries like San Diego and Ventura there is no support,” said Ed Forchion, a veteran cannabis activist in Los Angeles who owns the Liberty Bell Temple, a lawfully registered Rastafarian religious facility that also serves as a medicinal marijuana dispensary.
“Then there is the third position, the position of the growers and the benefactors of the multi-billion dollar (marijuana) black market in counties like Humboldt and Lake who oppose Prop 19 as cutting into their business with taxation and lowering prices,” noted Forchion.
“I support Prop 19 but I think it’s going to fail. I’d much rather see taxation instead of incarceration,” continued Forchion, whose legalization advocacy once prompted an unlawful imprisonment by New Jersey authorities that ended with harsh criticism from a federal judge whose ruling strengthened First Amendment rights.
The odd alliance that links illegal pot growers with traditional anti-drug advocates in opposition to Prop 19 is matched by an equally bizarre teaming up by some of the supporters for this controversial measure.
Supporters include mainstream proponents like California state legislators who are pushing Prop 19 as a means of generating more than one billion in new tax revenue for California’s cash starved state and local governments while saving over $200-million now spent to enforce prohibition.
One unusual supporter of Prop 19 is the California chapter of the NAACP which sees elimination of prohibition as a civil rights issue – specifically a means for ending racially discriminatory law enforcement practices targeting blacks, particularly young black males.
The marijuana possession arrest rates for blacks in each of California’s 25 largest counties is double, triple and often quadruple the arrest rate of whites despite federal studies consistently showing marijuana use among whites exceeding that of blacks. A criminal arrest record for marijuana possession cripples a range of things from getting jobs to obtaining bank loans and financial aid for college.
“We have empirical proof that the application of the marijuana laws has been unfairly applied to our young people of color,” said Alice Huffman, president of the NAACP’s California branch.
“To be clear, the War on Drugs isn’t waged against drug lords and violent cartels,” Huffman said pointing out the enforcement emphasis on the poor. “The California NAACP does not believe maintaining the illusion we’re winning the ‘war on drugs’ is worth sacrificing another generation of our young men and women…Enough is enough…”
Interestingly, the national NAACP does not object to its California chapter’s focus on unfair drug law enforcement – the same national NAACP that rejected activist Ed Forchion’s request for assistance during his unlawful incarceration seven years ago.
Typically, the California NAACP’s posture on marijuana decriminalization sparks ire among some black religious leaders in that state who are demanding Huffman’s removal.
The Rev. Anthony Evans, president of National Black Church Initiative blasts the state NAACP’s Prop 19 support as “sending out the wrong message given that over the last 30 years we have lost over 200,000 people to drug-related crimes in the African-American community. How can the church be in the business of promoting illegal drugs?”
Opponents of Prop 19 like Rev. Evans advance anti-legalization arguments, such as claiming increases in both crime and use among youths – arguments which have repeatedly been discredited by comprehensive studies.
The 1944 report on the “Marihuana Problem in New York City” commissioned by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia found that marijuana did not trigger addiction to hard drugs and the substance “is not the determining factor in the commission of major crimes.”
The 1972 report of the comprehensive marijuana study ordered by President Richard Nixon stated in its conclusion that the “existing social and legal policy is out of proportion to the individual and social harm engendered by the use of the drug.” Nixon shelved that report because it recommended an end to pot prohibition.
Many black ministers have abetted drug war racism charges prohibition opponent Forchion, whose Liberty Bell Temple suffered a legally suspect raid by Los Angeles police recently where medical marijuana and money were removed without police providing proper documentation of their seizures.
“The war on drugs is a far greater problem to black society than some herb. Black ministers are the problem because many are blinded to the truth. Had the black ministers in this country rebelled at the (anti-drug laws passed since 1970) we wouldn’t have the mass incarceration of blacks we now have. Anti-drug laws have replaced Jim Crow laws,” said Forchion.
Drug arrest rates for blacks nationwide has exceeded that of whites for the past three decades despite blacks and whites engaging “in drug offenses at comparable rates” stated a March 2009 report issued by the respected Human Rights Watch organization.
In New York City, blacks and Latinos comprise 86% of the pot possession arrests despite comprising less than half the population of the city where billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg openly admits having used marijuana and ‘liking it’ when younger. Whites are 35% of NYC’s population but just 12% of the pot possession arrests.
In March 2008, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination harshly criticized the U.S. record on race matters in a report where recommendations called on the U.S. government to rectify “stark racial disparities” in the criminal justice system including Drug War discrimination.
Race prejudice against blacks and Hispanics played a role in the 1937 passage of the federal legislation outlawing pot.
Pot prohibition relies more on political pressures than scientific proof documenting harm.
For example, in November 1990 Alaska citizens voted to recriminalize the possession of pot which had been lawful in that state since 1975 when the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that the privacy clause of that state’s constitution protected adult possession of small quantities of marijuana in the home.
Proponents of that Alaska vote recriminalizing pot possession did not cite data of increases in crime or teen use. Instead proponents successfully argued that their state should join other states that outlawed the drug.
The pot prohibition stance ignores a critical reality recognized by a dissenting justice in an 1890 Washington State Supreme Court ruling. That justice who opposed a law targeting ethnic Chinese by criminalizing opium smoking in private stated, “There is a distinction to be recognized between the use and abuse of any article or substance.”
LINN WASHINGTON is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, the new independent, collectively-owned, journalist-run online newspaper. His work, and that of colleagues John Grant, Dave Lindorff and Charles Young, can be found at www.thiscantbehappening.net