Ever since Colorado and Washington made the unprecedented move to legalize recreational pot last year, excitement and stories of unfettered success have billowed into the air. Colorado’s marijuana tax revenue far exceeded expectations, bringing a whopping $185 million to the state and tourists are lining up to taste the budding culture (pun intended). Several other states are now looking to follow suit and legalize.
But the ramifications of this momentous shift are left unaddressed. When you flick on the TV to a segment about the flowering pot market in Colorado, you’ll find that the faces of the movement are primarily white and male. Meanwhile, many of the more than 210,000 people who were arrested for marijuana possession in Colorado between 1986 and 2010 according to a report from the Marijuana Arrest Research Project, remain behind bars. Thousands of black men and boys still sit in prisons for possession of the very plant that’s making those white guys on TV rich.
“In many ways the imagery doesn’t sit right,” said Michelle Alexander, associate professor of law at Ohio State University and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness in a public conversation on March 6 with Asha Bandele of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Here are white men poised to run big marijuana businesses, dreaming of cashing in big—big money, big businesses selling weed—after 40 years of impoverished black kids getting prison time for selling weed, and their families and futures destroyed. Now, white men are planning to get rich doing precisely the same thing?”
Alexander said she is “thrilled” that Colorado and Washington have legalized pot and that Washington D.C. decriminalized possession of small amounts earlier this month. But she said she’s noticed “warning signs” of a troubling trend emerging in the pot legalization movement: Whites—men in particular—are the face of the movement, and the emerging pot industry. (A recent In These Times article titled “ The Unbearable Whiteness of Marijuana Legalization,” summarize this trend.)
Alexander said for 40 years poor communities of color have experienced the wrath of the war on drugs.
“Black men and boys” have been the target of the war on drugs’ racist policies—stopped, frisked and disturbed—“often before they’re old enough to vote,” she said. Those youths are arrested most often for nonviolent first offenses that would go ignored in middle-class white neighborhoods.
“We arrest these kids at young ages, saddle them with criminal records, throw them in cages, and then release them into a parallel social universe in which the very civil and human rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights movement no longer apply to them for the rest of their lives,” she said. “They can be discriminated against [when it comes to] employment, housing, access to education, public benefits. They’re locked into a permanent second-class status for life. And we’ve done this in precisely the communities that were most in need of our support.”
As Asha Bandele of DPA pointed out during the conversation, the U.S. has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners. Today, 2.2 million people are in prison or jail and 7.7 million are under the control of the criminal justice system, with African American boys and men—and now women—making up a disproportionate number of those imprisoned.
Alexander’s book was published four years ago and spent 75 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, helping to bring mass incarceration to the forefront of the national discussion.
Alexander said over the last four years, as she’s been traveling from state to state speaking to audiences from prisons to universities about her book, she’s witnessed an “awakening.” More and more people are talking about mass incarceration, racism and the war on drugs.