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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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.

The nation is addicted to its own practice of high incarceration, and the prison industrial complex is too deeply entrenched in the broader economy. Obviously, monitoring the illegal trade of hard drugs like cocaine and heroin must remain a priority for any civilized society, but perhaps a progressive movement that decriminalizes marijuana — which proponents say is less harmful than alcohol — could be the beginning of a new era in drug-control policy.

President Obama’s challenge is twofold: to focus explicitly on a problem that disproportionately affects African Americans — his most loyal constituency — without appearing to be motivated solely by race. Considering the damage already done, the risk is worth the reward.

Edward Wyckoff Williams is contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.