Empty Gestures From the Obama Administration

Nov 28, 2011

kerlikowske, Medical Marijuana, minority, Obama, possession, racial disparity

The Obama administration has always paid lip service to the idea of pursuing more sensible drug policy, but has rarely lived up to its promises. From launching state-to-state crackdowns on medical marijuana providers despite promises to let states determine their own policies to attempting to license the federal government’s marijuana patent for profit while claiming that marijuana has no accepted medical value, the Obama administration continues to disappoint on this issue. Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske may say that the War on Drugs is over, but “legalization” still isn’t in the President’s vocabulary, and the war on marijuana users is still in full effect.

Given this unfortunate history, the administration’s signals of hope last week rang even more hollow.

The three pardons granted last week by Obama to former marijuana prisoners could be viewed as a step in the right direction for an administration that has consistently increased its enforcement against marijuana violations. It is certainly a boon for those three individuals, who will no longer have to deal with the stigma of arrest and incarceration haunting them the rest of their lives. Those three people will find it easier to find employment, apply for student loans and federal education assistance, and will finally be able to vote again.

The recipients of these pardons should be lauded for becoming pillars of their communities after their incarceration. But how many pillars have been torn from their communities by prohibition, whether for providing medicine to sick people or simply choosing to relax with a substance that is safer than alcohol?

Those three people should be celebrating. The mitigation of the effects the war on marijuana has had on their lives is long overdue. But that celebration provides no solace to the 853,000 people arrested in the U.S. in 2010 for marijuana violations, 750,000 of which were for simple possession. Nor does it comfort the families of those who have died at the hands of the police during marijuana raids, or those who have lost beloved family pets and property to marijuana prohibition.

The press conference given by Gil Kerlikowske last Monday is perhaps even more insulting to supporters of drug policy reform. The purpose of this event was to address concerns that minority populations were being disproportionately affected by drug laws and what could be done to fix this problem. While he proposed many positive efforts to reduce the effect that drugs have in the African-American community, he overlooked some glaring facts.

Even though marijuana use among whites is higher than in any racial demographic, minorities are arrested for marijuana violations at a staggeringly higher rate throughout the country. This disparity in arrests, as well as the accompanying disparity in sentencing for drug crimes has an undeniably detrimental effect on African-American and Hispanic families and communities that is directly tied to the ability of police to arrest people for marijuana. Even in New York City, where marijuana possession is technically decriminalized, law enforcement found a loophole to facilitate the arrests of over 50,000 people a year for marijuana violations. The vast majority of those arrestees are people of color. Until we remove the threat of arrest, we cannot adequately or realistically confront the impact of drugs in any community.

Kerlikowske is right: we cannot arrest our way out of our drug problems. Logic would suggest, then, that we stop trying. For the drug czar to propose fixing those problems for minorities while leaving policies in place that undeniably support systemic racism is disgraceful.

It may be a good sign that the Obama administration is looking at this issue with a little more interest, and is moving along harm reduction lines to solve it, but the fact remains that the government is still at war with marijuana users. We need to go further. There must be a legitimate dialogue in the White House to mirror the one occurring on an international level and among voters about the failure of marijuana prohibition.