Toward the end of the first Democratic debate last week, the moderator, Anderson Cooper, brought up the topic of marijuana with a joke. “Some of the candidates have tried marijuana, as have pretty much — probably everybody in this room,” he said. The largely white, upper-middle-class audience laughed. Of course they had.
Marijuana is by far the most ubiquitous illegal drug in the United States: 49 percent of Americans have tried pot at least once, and more than a quarter of Americans under 30 have smoked up in the last month. If the aim of keeping marijuana illegal is to make it unavailable and discourage people from using it, it’s hard to think of a policy that has failed more miserably. Tens of millions Americans, including the last three presidents, have smoked pot, and it is widely and correctly viewed as benign. So it’s not surprising that Cooper got a bit of a chuckle for accusing everyone in the room of committing a crime.
In response, the Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton, came out against the legalization of marijuana. She made a brazen attempt to have it both ways, calling for “more research” and suggesting that marijuana should remain illegal but that no one should go to prison for it — an endearing paradox reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s 1992 claim that he smoked marijuana but “didn’t inhale.” But evasions aside, she wants to keep weed criminalized. Presidential candidates don’t typically tell an audience that half the people in it should be arrested and given permanent criminal records, yet that’s what happened. So why wasn’t she booed off the stage?
If you’re a white middle-class American, as most of Clinton’s audience was, your odds of facing legal consequences for marijuana possession are vanishingly small. You won’t be caught, you won’t be arrested, and if you are arrested you’ll get a slap on the wrist. The same goes for your children and your friends and your stoner nephew: You’ll all be fine.
That’s why, although a majority of Americans favor legalization (53 percent, including 68 percent of millennials), it hasn’t become a major political issue: White Americans see it as a matter of cultural politics rather than criminal justice policy — a way of signaling what side you’re on in the culture wars rather than a decision about who should be locked up.
That’s dead wrong. According to the ACLU, there were 8.2 million arrests for marijuana in the U.S. from 2001 to 2010 — hundreds of thousands a year, 88 percent of them just for possession. So why don’t most Americans care? How is it possible for a presidential candidate who calls herself progressive to stay on the wrong side of this issue?
Simple: Like so much of the criminal justice system, it mostly affects black people. Although black and white Americans smoke pot at very similar rates, black users are more than three times as likely to be arrested. This difference is national — black users are at least twice as likely to face arrest in all but three states — but many urban and heavily Democratic areas are dramatically worse. Before Washington, D.C., legalized marijuana, black users were eight times as likely to be arrested as white users. In St. Louis, 18.6 black people were arrested for pot possession per white person in 2010; in New York City under Mayor Bill de Blasio, 86 percent of those arrested for possession have been black or Latino.
To put it bluntly, pot isn’t illegal in this country; being black while smoking pot is. If every white middle-class teenager who smoked pot were arrested tomorrow, the outcry over such a senseless and damaging policy would lead to full legalization in no time.
Drug policy has been all about race-baiting since Richard Nixon’s administration. But the practice of arresting hundreds of thousands of people a year for marijuana isn’t just a holdover from the 1970s. It accelerated during the policing revolution of the 1990s, when Bill Clinton was calling for “a cop on every corner” and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was introducing “broken windows” policing to New York. Policing pot played a key role in this strategy: In New York City, for instance, marijuana arrests climbed from 800 in 1991 to over 59,000 in 2010. Marijuana, ubiquitous yet illegal, gives the police the discretion to stop, search and arrest nearly anyone — which in practice means young black and Latino men.
Legalizing marijuana is an essential step toward ending the aggressive, racist and violent policing that the Black Lives Matter protests have brought to national attention in the past year. Keeping weed illegal perpetuates a racist criminal justice system and subjects young black men to constant harassment, search and arrest by the police. It’s also a futile, expensive and unnecessary public policy, and a majority of Americans would like to see it ended. Hillary Clinton claims to believe that black lives matter, and backing legalization would be among the most common-sense, least politically risky ways of demonstrating it.
So why isn’t she on board? This is, after all, the same politician who explained why we need more prisons while stumping for her husband’s viciously punitive omnibus crime bill in 1994. The Clintons have a history of drawing support from white moderates with coded racial appeals, from tough-on-crime mass incarceration policies to welfare reform. This year Hillary Clinton has been attempting to adjust that strategy to suit a new, dramatically less white Democratic Party; she has endorsed body cameras, independent investigation of police shootings and modest sentencing reform.
It’s not enough. Such policies tinker around the edges of the U.S. criminal justice system, curbing its worst or most visible abuses while leaving its essence unchanged. We need far more radical reform; we need to end the war on drugs. Legalizing marijuana is a vitally important step in criminal justice reform, and Clinton’s unwillingness to endorse it says all we need to know about her commitment to black lives.