November 6, in addition to all the pivotal elections of leaders in our nation, Michiganders will see three referenda on the ballot: 18-1 legalizing marijuana for recreational use; 18-2: requiring that congressional districts be drawn by independent commission rather than the party in power; and 18-3: relaxing voter registration and absentee ballot rules to make it easier for people to vote. For the next three weeks, we'll review those in this space, to help us think through what is at stake. You're welcome to submit your own thoughts, if you'd like. And find your ballot and read the full text of the referendum here.
"The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I'm saying? We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black (sic), 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. We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."
This was the stunning revelation of John Ehrlichman, former Nixon aide, in an interview with Harper's Magazine and published in April, 2016.
The "war on drugs," then, has been, not the colossal failure we tend to say, but a monumental success. It has disrupted communities and vilified people, whole segments of people, and mostly, as intended, people of color. It is stunning, really, only in that Ehrlichman said it out loud.
As the years passed, heroin became a white drug, marijuana crossed races, and crack cocaine was introduced into urban black communities, perhaps as the war's "next campaign" to ensure no one would get out alive. But the reality remains that the "war on drugs" continues to devastate communities, disproportionately communities of color; and our prisons, by some accounts once on the verge of closure due to lack of need, are now filled beyond capacity, and we keep building more. The prison industry has become a lucrative campaign issue and a high-profit investment opportunity, and America has become the most incarceration-happy nation in the world.
According to the ACLU, more than half of all drug busts are for marijuana, and 88 percent are for simple possession. White people and black people use marijuana about equally, but black people are nearly 4 times as likely to be arrested for it. Prison exploitation, forfeiture laws, cash bail, treating juveniles as adults, and other legal abuses are all related to the system that turns so many into criminals. For a fuller discussion, re-read Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow.
For now, consider all the things we are not doing when we are prosecuting marijuana use: funding great schools, training adults for necessary work, maintaining infrastructure, prosecuting white collar crime (way more hurtful to communities, frankly), treating drug addicts, building affordable housing and community centers, designing adequate public transportation, providing healthcare and mental healthcare. Plus keeping lives, families and communities intact, which is not nothing. You could surely add your own ideas.
If doesn't have to be this way. Legalizing marijuana, fully legalizing it, is, I think, a sensible thing to do. "Most of what we hate and fear about drugs — the violence, the overdoses, the criminality — derives from prohibition, not drugs," wrote Dan Baum in that Harper's Article. Another writer noted that if marijuana is a "gateway drug," though that hasn't really been established, maybe it really is more about the people users must associate with when they buy it illegally. If we take away the underground marijuana market, maybe we actually help keep people from the harder stuff.
At our meeting last week, the Woodside Board of Directors affirmed this resolution, as a key piece of our advocacy for mass incarceration reform. It came to us because Jay and I had been asked to participate in a campaign to promote passage of the initiative. (The board approved that, but Jay and I eventually declined for other reasons.)
But, while the board agreed that legalization is the desired goal, we also agreed that the language of the referendum isn't perfect. We were especially concerned that the stipulations of the legislation would still provide loopholes for targeting people of color. It is restrictive, far more than I think necessary, given what we know about the relative dangers of alcohol and tobacco, and I'm not convinced it wouldn't still become a mitigating factor in the "piling on" that prosecutors like to do — heaping lesser charges onto a defendent to increase penalties for a primary offense. The proposed law isn't perfect, but it is a start.
Of course, you are welcome to your own thoughts. One of Woodside's hallmarks is that we don't always agree on everything. But we have been working hard to quit imprisoning so many people — especially black and brown people — and this could move us along that path.
So I recommend we vote yes, and then continue the work of learning to see racism, advocating for better laws that benefit us all.
With you on the way, - pastor deb