As support for legalization grows, he has choices to make that could keep many blacks out of prison.
Sen. Barack Obama declared that “the war on drugs has been an utter failure. We need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws … we need to rethink how we’re operating in the drug war.”
As president, Obama has acknowledged the high price paid by the black community, especially in urban areas, where police forces have used the drug war as an excuse to reinstate old racial codes.
President Obama‘s re-election has given him the dubious honor of being in a position to right these wrongs. Nov. 6 was not just a victory for him but was also a triumph for progressive ballot initiatives: namely, the decriminalization of recreational marijuana use. This past week might very well mark the beginning of the end of the war on drugs as we know it, with recreational use of marijuana becoming legal in the state of Washington as a result of its citizens’ vote. Coloradoans approved a similar measure and established an exchange in which citizens can grow and purchase the drug for medicinal use. A recent Quinnipiac poll shows that 54 percent of Americans support legalizing the drug, while 44 percent oppose it.
As states slowly begin to decriminalize marijuana, it remains to be seen whether President Obama and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder will continue to enforce federal oversight to arrest and prosecute offenders, no matter a state’s laws. Their decision could have widespread consequences for African Americans — young men in particular. According to Human Rights Watch, whites and blacks commit drug offenses at about the same rate, but blacks are incarcerated for drug-related crimes at an overwhelmingly higher rate. And young African-American males are disproportionately targeted in police actions that amount to “trolling for young black and Latino men” to arrest, according to Queens College professor Harry Levine, who has conducted numerous studies on arrests for marijuana possession.
Is there a reason to hope that change has finally come? Maybe. Then again, maybe not.
Though the drug war is fought on many levels, including the regulation of international trade and importation, its most prevalent effects are felt on the streets of America’s urban centers — from Newark, N.J., to New York City; Detroit to Chicago; and Oakland, Calif., to Los Angeles. The tie that binds these communities is their large African-American and Latino demographics. As police have “cracked down” on the drug trade, they’ve done so mostly in poorer minority communities, and the effects are endemic. As law professor Michelle Alexander explains in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, this strategy has led to devastating outcomes for black youths.
According to a 2011 Human Rights Watch report, black males are incarcerated at a rate six times that of white males and 2.6 times that of Hispanics. One in 10 African-American men ages 25-29 were in prison or jail in 2009 — mostly for drug offenses — while only 1 in 64 white males were in prison. The current policies cripple thousands, some of whose youthful mistakes leave them struggling throughout adulthood.
Since the drug war was initiated by President Richard Nixon in 1971, it has led to more than 45 million arrests and hundreds of thousands of convictions, making the United States the world’s most incarcerated nation, behind even China — whose population of more than 1 billion trumps the U.S. population of just over 300 million.
President Obama’s challenge is twofold: to focus explicitly on a problem that disproportionately affects African Americans — his most loyal constituency — without appearing to be motivated solely by race. Considering the damage already done, the risk is worth the reward.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.
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