By Senator Daylin Leach
In the weeks since the May 25th murder of George Floyd by the police officer in Minneapolis who put his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for almost 9 minutes, we have witnessed a sea-change in attitudes towards race relations across the nation.
In the past, there have been other horrific incidents of mistreatment involving African Americans, from Rodney King to Tamir Rice to Eric Garner to Breonna Taylor. While these shocking events led to condemnation and protest, America’s collective outrageous always seemed to be fleeting and inconsequential. This time is different.
Unjust laws, long condoned, have been swept aside. Oppressive and discriminatory police policies that have been defended for decades have abruptly fallen, as have monuments to numerous retrograde historical figures. At long last, it seems that America has arrived at a consensus that the manifestations of racism will no longer be tolerated.
Given where the George Floyd tragedy has brought us, it is time to end one of the most racially problematic laws on our books today, that being the prohibition on marijuana.
Cannabis was initially banned in 1937 by the “Marijuana Tax Act.” The lead-up to the passage of that law was a sustained and aggressive demonization of cannabis by a Pennsylvanian named Harry Anslinger. Mr. Anslinger headed up the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. His tactics were not subtle. He testified to Congress that cannabis made black men “think they were just as good as white men,” and caused white women to seek out sexual relations with black men. He said in a speech, “…the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races.”
Anslinger targeted black citizens, including singer Billie Holiday, for harassment under cannabis criminal statutes, and this started a decade-long pattern of racial discrimination and targeting in the enforcement of marijuana laws. As the years went by, enforcement techniques became more harsh and cruel, and penalties continually ratcheted up.
Shortly before he died, President Nixon’s Domestic Policy Advisor John Ehrlichman admitted what was really behind his administration’s aggressive marijuana policies:
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people … We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, 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.”
In other words, prohibition was deliberately designed to be a tool to control and undermine minority communities.
This oppression continues to this day. Even though blacks and whites use cannabis at the same rate, blacks are four times more likely to be arrested, and if arrested, five times more likely to be incarcerated for cannabis-related offenses.
Once convicted of a marijuana offense, the mostly black defendants are shunted into the vortex of the criminal-justice system from which it is challenging to escape. Those with previous offenses are punished for “reoffending.” Those put on probation are at risk for being “violated” and incarcerated for even technical violations, such as failure to provide a new phone number in a timely way. Every time someone with a record based on a marijuana-related offense applies for a job, they have to check the box saying they have a criminal record. Often those arrested lose the job or slot in college that they already had.
Harry Anslinger is long-gone. But his legacy of prohibition continues to decimate minority communities.
It seems to me that if we mean it when we say “Black Lives Matter,” and if we are committed to seizing this unique moment in history to banish legal discrimination at long last, we can no longer abide a policy born of racism, steeped in racism, sustained by racism and whose consequences are so racially disparate.
I have introduced a bill, SB 350, which would end the anachronistic abomination that prohibition is. In addition to ending prohibition, my bill would expunge the records of those convicted previously and free everyone incarcerated solely due to a marijuana-related offense. The time to pass that bill is now.