Linn Washington Jr. is an award-winning journalist who writes a weekly column for The Philadelphia Tribune. A graduate of the Yale Law Journalism Fellowship, Washington writes regularly on issues involving law, the criminal justice system, news media and inequities involving race and/or class. This ’information junkie’ teaches multi-media urban reporting at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pa. He lives in New Jersey and frequently travels abroad.
The Other Afrik - United States - Panafrica - Justice - Racism
Drug War Racism Ravishes America
A minor change in court processing procedures in Philadelphia, streamlining the handling of arrests for pot possession, sparked a major controversy recently that totally missed the most outrageous aspect of marijuana law enforcement.
This controversy, focusing on feared decriminalization of marijuana despite the fact that this widely used substance remains illegal under Pennsylvania law, ignored the insidious racial discrimination rampant in marijuana law enforcement.
Across Pennsylvania, whites accounted for 58% of the marijuana possession arrests in 2008 according to the Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Report covering that year.
Yet, in Philadelphia during 2008, black males accounted for 82.8% of the 4,716 adults snatched up for smoking pot (not selling it) according to data culled from Pa’s 2008 UCR by the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
Assertions from authorities that race neutral reasons – like higher criminal activity – explain the extraordinarily high number of marijuana possession arrests among black males in Philadelphia defy realities of parity in percentages of population and pot usage rates.
Since the proportion of blacks and whites in Philadelphia’s population is nearly equal (43% and 45% respectively) and studies consistently detail white illegal drug use exceeding that of blacks, the accurate explanation for disproportionate pot possession arrest rates is police specifically targeting blacks.
This targeting of blacks crosses gender lines.
“Just 90 white women” endured arrest for pot possession in Philadelphia during 2008 compared to “345 black women arrested for the same offense,” stated a Philly NORML examination released in February 2010, noting the critical context of several studies showing that “black and white woman choose cannabis at near equal rates.”
This targeting of blacks in Philadelphia is a common trait of the U.S. War on Drugs.
Drug arrest rates for blacks nationwide has exceeded that of whites for the past three decades despite blacks and whites engaging “in drug offenses at comparable rates” stated a March 2009 report issued by the respected Human Rights Watch organization.
Data in that HRW report included disturbing state-by-state arrest rates documenting the targeting of blacks.
In Delaware, the state twenty miles south of Philadelphia, blacks comprise 20% of the population but 55% of the drug arrests. Blacks are 15% of the population in Illinois but account for 80% of drug arrests while blacks are 21% of the drug arrests in California where they comprise 7% of that state’s population.
In New York City, blacks and Latinos comprise 86% of the pot possession arrests despite comprising less than half the population of the city where billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg openly admits having used marijuana and ‘liking it’ when younger. Whites are 35% of NYC’s population but just 12% of the pot possession arrests.
In March 2008, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination harshly criticized the U.S. record on race matters in a report where recommendations called on the U.S. government to rectify “stark racial disparities” in the criminal justice system including Drug War discrimination.
Discriminatory Drug War deprivations comprise some of the most devastating civil rights violations in America today.
Conviction for a drug offense – even simple possession – bars persons from college financial aid, public housing plus numerous employment opportunities. Convictions – particularly for blacks – produce imprisonment…most often lengthy.
Many of the most pronounced Drug War deprivations involve federal crack cocaine laws where discriminatory enforcement has dumped tens of thousands of low-level offenders into prisons – helping swell federal prisons from 36,000 inmates in 1986 to over 200,000 today.
Most drug offenders in federal prisons are low-level seller’s – not major traffickers – or mere crack users, subjected to mandatory five-year minimum prison terms for possessing five or less grams of that substance.
The US Senate recently refused to fully eliminate race-based disparities in federal crack cocaine laws despite the congressional advisory agency, the US Sentencing Commission, first requesting elimination of disparities in 1995.
The Obama Administration agreed to Senate compromises skirting gross discriminatory disparities in crack laws despite President Obama pledging to fully eliminate those disparities while campaigning for office.
This Obama flip-flop drew stern March 2010 rebuke from the net-based lobbying group ColorofChange.org, a supporter of Obama’s presidential candidacy.
“Shameful” is how ColorofChange.org described Obama’s support of that Senate bill sacrificing justice on the altar of bipartisanship.
Festering, decades-deep racism in U.S. anti-drug policy is a topic generally downplayed or denied by many American political leaders, press pundits and influential pastors.
For example, former President Bill Clinton condemned America’s “less than just” justice system during an October 15, 1995 speech on race delivered to upstage the seminal Million Man March that day where numerous speakers castigated crack law disparities.
Yet, Clinton, two weeks after his race speech backed less-than-just congressional rejection of legislation to eliminate crack law disparities. Clinton justified his discrimination sanctioning action with canards about crack dangers that were thoroughly refuted in an extensive U.S. Sentencing Commission study on crack released months earlier.
America’s outlawing of marijuana sale and possession in 1937 rode the back of embedded individual and institutional racism.
The then head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the infamous Harry Anslinger, deliberately inflamed members of Congress with inaccurate assertions like “marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes.” Legal segregation – with stiff prohibitions against interracial sex – then dominated all areas of American society.
Ed Forchion, one of the few blacks in America widely recognized for his marijuana legalization activism, argues that U.S. pot prohibition rests on “medieval European Christian superstition about cannabis, industrial conspiracies [against hemp plant production] and outright racism.”
Forchion, better known as NJ Weedman, feels the budget crisis from recession-spawned revenue shortfalls will force governments (federal, state and local) to legalize and tax marijuana.
Philadelphia spends over $2-million per year just processing pot possession arrests while similar processing in NYC costs $90-million annually. Across America, pot prohibition enforcement consumes between $10-12-billion annually.
Newspapers will never carry headlines “that the government has won the War on Drugs,” said Forchion who operates the Liberty Bell Temple medical marijuana dispensary in Los Angeles. “But I believe we will see a headline saying: MARIJUANA IS LEGAL.”
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