It’s been a long time coming. President Obama has been very open about his youthful drug use, admitting to using cocaine and marijuana during his student years. Yet he was shielded from police by the protection that comes with attending elite schools. As a community organizer on the south side of Chicago it was impossible for him to be unaware of the terrible impact of the ‘war on drugs’ in poor black communities. Illinois still has the distinction of being one of the states with the worst racial disparities in drug law enforcement. A black man is 40 times more likely to be arrested for drugs in Illinois than a white man, despite similar rates of group drug use. So, it was heartening to hear him finally acknowledge what we all know – marijuana law enforcement disproportionately targets low-income and urban youth of color for behavior (possessing or using marijuana) that suburban and/or affluent youth engage in with impunity. When queried about shifting public opinion regarding marijuana, the President maintained his position opposing legalization but said he was very troubled by the disparate nature of marijuana law enforcement. Obama said the following:
“Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do,” he said. “And African-American kids and Latino kids are more likely to be poor and less likely to have the resources and the support to avoid unduly harsh penalties.” But, he said, “we should not be locking up kids or individual users for long stretches of jail time when some of the folks who are writing those laws have probably done the same thing.” Accordingly, he said of the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington that “it’s important for it to go forward because it’s important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished.”
The media has focused on Obama’s continued opposition to marijuana legalization despite his belief that marijuana is not more dangerous than alcohol – a legal, regulated drug. Many in the drug policy reform community believe the President has not gone far enough, he should come out fully in support of legalizing marijuana, a position the majority of Americans now favor.
As a long time drug policy reform supporter, I was not disappointed by the President’s statements, I applaud and commend them. By talking about the issue the way he did, he framed it in a way that resonates strongly with me – as a racial justice issue. Regardless of how one feels about the efficacy of making marijuana legally available for adult consumption, there is no question that our current policies and efforts to enforce them are hurting African-American and Latino youth. It’s ironic, a majority of the Beltway media (particularly those over 50) are primarily concerned about the effect marijuana legalization could have on children – as if the hundreds of thousands of children of color that are negatively affected by marijuana prohibition don’t exist. I guess in their world, they don’t count.
I applaud President Obama for acknowledging that it’s not behavior but privilege that determines outcomes for many youth – the privilege not to be surveilled, the privilege of not being followed, stopped, questioned or frisked, the privilege of possessing marijuana with the knowledge no police officer is going to ask you to empty your pockets, arrest you for your weed and imprint you with the stigma of criminality that may follow you forever.
Obama’s statement suggests his administration is seeking to get out of the business of marijuana law enforcement. The uphill battle he faces in advancing this relatively modest policy reform is evident by the immediate pushback from his own administration. The Boston Herald reported, DEA chief Michele M. Leonhart slammed President Obama’s recent comments comparing smoking marijuana to drinking alcohol at an annual meeting of the nation’s sheriffs, according to two sheriffs who said her remarks drew a standing ovation. Hopefully when President Obama learns his appointed head of the Drug Enforcement Administration still believes the agency should prioritize prosecuting pot offenses, he’ll take a deep breath, exhale slowly, call her in and tell her to look for another job. That would be change we can believe in.