The entire year of 2020 has been a state of upheaval. The threat of war with Iran in January vanished with the global advent of the Coronavirus pandemic and the massive police brutality protests during which police decided to show the public what they thought of their protests by increasing police brutality towards the populace, attacking journalists, and generally embodying the literal definition of fascism. Here in Colorado, legislation regarding police use of force is already moving forward with a 32-1 vote in favor from the senate to the house to be ratified. This bill would ban the police from certain uses of force and would make them publicly and legally accountable for their misdeeds. Minneapolis is attempting to disband its police force. Cries of “defund the police” are rising around the country as protests bring more and more disgusting footage of police abuse of power to the mainstream. We’re only halfway through the year and the punches just keep coming.
So how do we start piecing things back together in a more equitable way? While we’re shifting conceptions of social constructs, why not take a look at marijuana, whose criminalization has been partisan and bigoted from the get-go? As Jack Herer’s book “The Emperor Wears No Clothes” points out, a huge portion of the criminalization of marijuana was at the hands of William Randolph Hurst, old timey media mogul and all around human garbage fire, who used his newspapers to spread disinformation about marijuana in the late 19th century and tar it with the same brush used to smear minorites by association, most specifically African American and Latino peoples. I’ve covered Herer’s book in greater detail in previous posts, but suffice it to say Hurst turned white Americans against a traditional and widespread medicine by making them believe that only “inferior” peoples (i.e. non-Caucasians) used cannabis. With slavery abolished only 20 years prior, much of the country was still looking for cheap labor to replace slave labor. And how do you create a workforce you don’t have to pay but whom you technically don’t own? You create a new class of criminal and put them to work as part of the terms of their imprisonment. How do you turn a bunch of ordinary citizens into criminals overnight? You criminalize and defame a popular pastime and medicine and then lock up the “undesirables” who use it. Bingo bango, now you’ve got a for-profit prison industrial system in place of outright slavery. The first privatized prison in the U.S. cropped up in Louisiana in 1844, and according to an inmate’s memoir, “as soon as the prison was privatized, his jailers ‘laid aside all objects of reformation and re-instated the most cruel tyranny, to eke out the dollar and cents of human misery.’” And according to Time Magazine, “the 13th amendment had abolished slavery ‘except as punishment for a crime’ so, until the early 20th century, Southern prisoners were kept on private plantations and on company-run labor camps where they laid railroad tracks, built levees, and mined coal. Former slaveholders built empires that were bigger than those of most slave owners before the war. Nathan Bedford Forrest, first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, controlled all convicts in Mississippi for a period. US Steel, the world’s first billion-dollar company, forced thousands of prisoners to slave in its coal mines. Lessees went to extreme lengths to extract profits. In 1871, Tennessee lessee Thomas O’Conner forced convicts to work in mines and went as far as collecting their urine to sell to local tanneries. When they died from exhaustion or disease, he sold their bodies to the Medical School at Nashville for students to practice on.” In other words, the prisons worked inmates to death for cold hard cash and then sold their corpses to squeeze every ounce of value out of and to demean the prisoners even in death. If you think the prison industrial complex has shrunk since then, you haven’t been paying enough attention. 2018 saw one of the largest prison strikes in our country’s history, and the strikers sought to protest abuse of inmates and “modern slavery” in which federal prisoners are paid 12 to 40 cents per hour (which is nearly valueless…ten years worth of 40 hour work weeks yields you only $832/year or $8320 every decade…and state prisons often pay down to as little as 2 cents an hour) to produce goods that are then sold to the public at a humongous markup. A truly reprehensible number of retailers use prison labor to assemble their products. Here’s just a few examples: Victoria’s Secret, Whole Foods, Walmart, Microsoft, Starbucks, BP, Nintendo, AT&T, Target, Dell, Eddie Bauer, Kmart, Boeing, Macy’s, Wendy’s, Verizon, McDonalds, Revlon, Sprint, Honda, Johnson & Johnson, P&G, IBM, Shell, Texas Instruments, Caterpillar, and UPS. And that list is hardly exhaustive. There are tons of products you likely use on the daily that are produced for as little as 2 cents an hour by modern day slaves.
Mind you, all this private prison nonsense started right around the time that the eugenics movement was birthed in the United States by Sir Francis Galton in the 1880s. That’s right, a lot of American history teachers neglect to mention that the United States, not Nazi Germany, created eugenics and all the evils associated with breeding humans for profit and pleasure by means of spurious psuedoscientific methods. Not our proudest moment as a nation. The Nazis borrowed that bullshit from us and built an empire of horrors based upon the ideals of racial purity espoused by eugenicists. It wasn’t until Hitler co-opted eugenics into Nazi ideology and the US was forced to go to war with Germany by dint of our European allies that eugenics fell out of favor in the States. Sadly, we’ve seen a resurgence in white supremacist and nationalist movements in recent decades and now have an openly racist white nationalist in the White House who is fanning the flames of racial tensions with incendiary comments about nationwide protests over the public lynching of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police. Just weeks prior, armed white men stormed the capitals of several states in protest over Covid-19 lock down measures and screamed in the faces of law enforcement while strapped with ARs and AKs, and they suffered no ill consequence at the hands of the police. For this the president praised the protesters and told them to “take back” their state, that their 2nd Amendment rights were under attack. But when unarmed people of color began to peacefully protest against systemic police brutality towards minorities not two weeks later, the president called out the National Guard to aid fully militarized police departments in brutalizing their minority constituents for exercising their right to free assembly. And it’s not just the federal response that has been disproportionately more violent towards minorities than it was to whites not a month previous. This isn’t surprising, because state and local law enforcement have just as long a history of greater violence, racism, and oppression towards people of color than towards whites.
According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons data, 45.9% of all incarcerations in the United States are related to drug charges. The next highest category at only 19.6% of all inmates is over weapons, explosives, and arson charges. There are more than double the drug offenses as there are crimes involving weapons. I would give you better data regarding race and ethnicity with regards to conviction rates, but the Federal BOP has intentionally obscured its data. For Ethnicity, they only present two options: Hispanic and Non-Hispanic, which essentially erases and ignores African Americans, Native Americans, Asians, as well as other ethnicity. Then under Race, BOP only shows data for Asian, Black, Native American, and White inmates. Notice any major racial group not represented but instead lumped in with whites? Hispanic people. This means the dataset is intentionally obfuscating the racial and ethnic makeup of American inmates by omitting and/or combining data in a misleading manner. Thankfully DrugPolicy.org tracks incarceration statistics more thoroughly and analyzes them by demographic. According to them, “the number of arrests in 2018 in the U.S. for drug law violations [was] 1,654,282; Number of drug arrests that were for possession only: 1,429,299; Number of people arrested for a marijuana law violation in 2018: 663,367; Number of those charged with marijuana law violations who were arrested for possession only: 608,775. Percentage of people arrested for drug law violations who are Black or Latino: 46.9% (despite making up just 31.5% of the U.S. population).” It’s clear that the majority of drug charges are for possession alone, which means that our prisons are full of low level drug offenders who didn’t even have enough of a controlled substance on them to be charged with intent to distribute. In other words, the majority of drug offenders are users like you and me, whereas only 224,983 out of 1,654,282 (or put another way, just 13%) of prisoners incarcerated on drug charges are there because of charges beyond low level possession.
So if drug charges are disproportionately higher than other crimes and minorities are charged at a disproportionately higher rate than whites, then part of what needs to be addressed is how we as a society regard and prosecute drug use. The easiest transition we could make as a nation is to federally legalize or at least decriminalize marijuana. 11 states have already legalized marijuana, which means more than a fifth of the nation enjoys immunity to prosecution for possession. 36% of the prison population is there because of marijuana possession charges. That means more than one out of every three convicts are imprisoned for enjoying the very same recreational drug and medicine that much of the country is free to partake in, one which is non-addictive and impossible to overdose on. If the DEA ever decided to prosecute dispensary workers in a sudden reversal of the Cole Memo, I wouldn’t see the outside of prison walls for decades because I sell pounds and pounds of weed, edibles, and concentrate each year. Instead, thanks to Colorado thumbing their nose at the federal government, I’m able to do so out of a storefront, enjoy job benefits and legal protections, and make sustainable and (more importantly) legal money doing the exact same thing plenty of other potheads have been locked away for doing before me. It’s a complete double standard that I am totally free despite selling marijuana in quantity right now but a person back home in Arizona who has a half ounce of bud in their possession would be thrown in jail and receive felony charges. But all of these people could suddenly stop being a burden to society wasting away in prison being forced into slavery labor for corporations and they could magically become contributing members of society if we would alter federal law to at the very least decriminalize the possession of marijuana under, say, several ounces.
And since minority communities are targeted by the police more frequently than whites, removing one of the major reasons for cops harassing minorities by legalizing pot could only be beneficial. This would (hopefully) reduce the number of interactions between police and people of color to the tune of 600,000 fewer arrests per year just for possession of marijuana alone. Fewer people would lose their lives or livelihoods for enjoying a recreational drug which more than a fifth of the nation is allowed to partake in. When marijuana is legalized, every single state that has legalized has seen a drop in opioid usage, too, which further reduces the need for policing of drug usage. If we revise what we consider to be criminal, we can suddenly have a LOT fewer criminals.
But how do we do that? Well, one law firm is suing the DEA on the behalf of Sue Sisley with the Scottsdale Research Institute and three military veterans in order to reduce marijuana from a Schedule 1 drug so that research might be conducted on cannabis. The problem is that without research, cannabis can’t be removed from Schedule 1, but it is illegal to do clinical trials involving Schedule 1 drugs. This strands cannabis in legal limbo. As reported by Leafly, “‘We’re focused on getting ‘real world’ cannabis flower in the lab,’ Sisley said in an email to Leafly. ‘The NIDA/DEA monopoly represents one of the final and most onerous barriers to cannabis efficacy research. We want to do clinical trials with whole flower. Marijuana’s current schedule is part of a system that is preventing that from happening.’” I personally believe that we will need clinical trials before we can ever hope to change federal policy towards marijuana use. Without hard data, there’s no way we can hope to create change within the DEA. With any luck, this lawsuit has legs and there will be a rescheduling of cannabis within the next few years.
I won’t pretend that marijuana legalization is a cure-all for the social woes of modern America, specifically with regards to policing and race, but surely declassifying more than 600,000 citizens annually as criminals can only benefit us as a nation. I seriously believe that an initiative for federally legalizing cannabis should be considered as one of many steps to rectify the social and racial injustice we see all around us on the news each day.