What Will Obama Do About Marijuana?

As support for legalization grows, he has choices to make that could keep many blacks out of prison.

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Targeting Brown and Black People

Though the drug war is fought on many levels, including the regulation of international trade and importation, its most prevalent effects are felt on the streets of America's urban centers -- from Newark, N.J., to New York City; Detroit to Chicago; and Oakland, Calif., to Los Angeles. The tie that binds these communities is their large African-American and Latino demographics. As police have "cracked down" on the drug trade, they've done so mostly in poorer minority communities, and the effects are endemic. As law professor Michelle Alexander explains in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, this strategy has led to devastating outcomes for black youths.

Once you are labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination -- employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits ... are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America, we have merely redesigned it.

According to a 2011 Human Rights Watch report, black males are incarcerated at a rate six times that of white males and 2.6 times that of Hispanics. One in 10 African-American men ages 25-29 were in prison or jail in 2009 -- mostly for drug offenses -- while only 1 in 64 white males were in prison. The current policies cripple thousands, some of whose youthful mistakes leave them struggling throughout adulthood.

In no place is this racial disparity more evident than the great metropolis of New York. Like Obama, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has praised marijuana-decriminalization efforts in the past. And in 2001 Bloomberg was asked by New York magazine if he had ever used marijuana. "You bet I did," he replied. "And I enjoyed it." But Bloomberg, like so many white New Yorkers, avoided any legal consequences for his actions.

In contrast, under Bloomberg's leadership, low-level marijuana arrests have skyrocketed by 50 percent. And in the past few years, 87 percent of all those arrested have been young African-American and Latino males. When presented with this evidence by the New York Civil Liberties Union, Bloomberg defended the NYPD's stop-and-frisk practice, which critics argue is a justification for racial profiling. Though the NYCLU report showed that white New Yorkers were far more likely to carry concealed weapons and use drugs like marijuana, the city has yet to alter its practice of targeting minorities.

Those who first appeared to present solutions have proved to be a part of the problem.

Beyond the Drug War

Since the drug war was initiated by President Richard Nixon in 1971, it has led to more than 45 million arrests and hundreds of thousands of convictions, making the United States the world's most incarcerated nation, behind even China -- whose population of more than 1 billion trumps the U.S. population of just over 300 million.

Dismantling the war on drugs won't be easy. Reuter's Bernd Debusmann explains that getting the prison population back to its percentage prior to the drug war will cost at least a million jobs. One look at President Obama's 2011 drug-control budget tells the story, with its 13 percent increase in anti-drug spending for the Pentagon and an 18 percent increase for the Bureau of Prisons.