By David Bergh
Associate Editor, Volume 23
Over the past few decades there has been a sea change in the American public’s attitude towards marijuana prohibition. In 1990 only 16% of the US public supported legalization, and 81% were opposed. Twenty seven years later the numbers were 61% in favor of legalization and 37% against. This tectonic shift in opinion is reflected in the fact that there are now 29 states, including Michigan, with medical marijuana programs. Additionally, nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized the recreational use of marijuana. Michigan looks set to join the recreational club this November, as the Michigan Marijuana Legalization Initiative is all but certain to appear on ballots for the 2018 election. The ballot initiative proposes to legalize the recreational use of marijuana for persons 21 and older. Those wishing to sell or produce recreational marijuana will need to obtain a license from the state, and local governments will be able to decide if they want to allow recreational marijuana business within their borders. While the passage of the Michigan Marijuana Legalization Initiative would be a step forward towards addressing the racially disparate impact of the War on Drugs, the proposed Act is no panacea.
The movement toward legalization and the public’s growing acceptance of marijuana has thrown the racialized impact of the War on Drugs into sharp relief. On one hand the New York Times trumpets the investment opportunities that the legalization movement has created, and white millennials flock to “ganja yoga” classes in San Francisco. On the other hand Black Americans continue to bear the brunt of drug enforcement, with a police raid on a birthday party in Georgia that led to the arrest of 63 people for less than an ounce of marijuana being only the most recent and widely reported example. So far, neither the nation’s changing marijuana laws, or the shift in public opinion have had a positive effect on the War on Drugs. Marijuana arrests rose in absolute terms from 2000 to 2013, and Blacks are still nearly four times to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, despite nearly identical rates of usage. This disparity in the treatment of marijuana use is particularly severe in some parts of Michigan, with Black residents of Monroe, St. Clair and Jackson counties being 15 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than their white peers. This reflects the fact that Michigan’s prison population is majority-minority, despite non-Hispanic whites accounting for more than 75% of the state’s population. Even discounting a jail sentence, the effects of a marijuana arrest can be serious and long-lasting. Having a possession arrest on your record can affect custodial rights, public benefits, financial aid for college, and employment prospects, as having any criminal record, even for a minor drug arrest, cuts a job applicant’s chances of getting a call-back in half.