If polling is correct, pot no longer gives Americans fits. Recent Gallup polls indicate that 64 percent of Americans approve of legalizing marijuana — the highest level of public support in almost 50 years. Nevertheless, we have an administration that is tone deaf to the will of the people and insists on reinstituting failed policies of decades past.
But there are members of Congress who are listening. Last week, Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) introduced the Marijuana Justice Act in the House of Representatives. Both agree that legalizing marijuana under federal law is an important step to confronting and eroding the harm that the failed war on drugs has had on people across the country, disproportionately black and brown communities.
In addition to legalization, the bill would cut federal funding for state law enforcement and prison construction if a state disproportionately arrests and incarcerates people of color for marijuana offenses. It also would retroactively apply to those currently serving sentences and allow people in federal prison for marijuana offenses to go to court and ask a judge to reduce their sentences.
When Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) introduced the bill in the Senate last summer, he acknowledged that “our country’s drug laws are badly broken and need to be fixed. … [T]hey don’t make our communities any safer.” Booker, like Lee and Khanna, understands that laws that do not make communities safer must be questioned and, in this case, stricken.
Currently more than one in five Americans live in the eight states and the District of Columbia that have legalized small amounts of marijuana for recreational use, not to mention the 29 states that approve medicinal use. The federal government should follow the states, and the people, and legalize pot.
In a groundbreaking 2013 report, the ACLU documented that black people are almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, despite comparable usage rates. Even more disturbing, in 2013 in the District of Columbia, where black people make up 49 percent of the population and whites and people of other backgrounds make up 51 percent, nearly 91 percent of the people arrested for marijuana offenses were black. These stunning statistics led D.C. residents to support marijuana legalization in 2016. They should likewise spur people to support the Marijuana Justice Act.
As John Ehrlichman, former domestic policy chief for Richard Nixon, confirmed, the war on drugs was never about the stated purpose of protecting the health and safety of the American people. Instead, it was really about undermining the black and antiwar communities.
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people,” Ehrlichman told journalist Dan Baum in 1994. “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.”
He continued: “Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Unfortunately, in 2018 we have an attorney general who is stuck in the past and has embraced these divisive Nixonian policies and tactics. Earlier this month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded several Obama-era policies that recognized states’ rights to legalize marijuana for recreational and medicinal purposes.
Although this administration does not recognize or seem to care about the harm that antiquated drug policies have caused to communities of color, it is refreshing to see that some members of Congress — like Cory Booker, Barbara Lee, and Ro Khanna — do. They are fighting back with the Marijuana Justice Act, which lives up to its name and would be important to criminal justice reform for our nation.
Jesselyn McCurdy works for the ACLU Washington legislative office, and is responsible for defending civil liberties in Congress and in the executive branch in the areas of criminal justice.