(The Root) — Weeks ago, progressive activists celebrated newly announced efforts by Attorney General Eric Holder to reform drug-sentencing guidelines. According to Holder’s recent speech before the American Bar Association, “Today a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities,” because of draconian sentencing measures. The attorney general was referring to mandatory minimum sentencing for drug charges that have often resulted in nonviolent offenders serving lengthy jail sentences that can leave them unable to secure employment upon release, thus perpetuating a cycle of criminality and poverty.
As a result, Holder will be directing U.S. attorneys to use their discretion to charge defendants based on the appropriate sentence warranted, with factors like connections to a criminal organization and likelihood of recidivism taken into consideration, as opposed to a one-size-fits-all policy of mandatory minimums continuing as the norm.
But while the Obama administration drew praise for this step forward in fairness and progressive policy, the president is likely to continue to receive criticism for other aspects of his drug policy. Earlier this week, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the president does not support changes to current marijuana laws “at this point.” Although some felt the remark signaled cause for optimism, since “at this point” is not the same as “never,” the official White House policy remains against legalizing a substance that the majority of Americans believe should be legal, including the president’s one-time choice for surgeon general.
CNN medical expert Sanjay Gupta, whom the Obama administration was once said to be considering for the surgeon general post, recently did an about-face on the issue of legal marijuana use. In an op-ed, Gupta, a neurosurgeon, apologized for his previous statements on the negative effects of medical marijuana, now calling them misleading.
But the president so far remains unmoved, despite the fact that the highest number of Americans ever polled, 52 percent, now support legalization. But even more disturbing, arrests and convictions for marijuana possession disproportionately affect black Americans, even though marijuana use among both blacks and whites is about the same.
According to an analysis of crime data by the American Civil Liberties Union reported by USA Today in June, “Marijuana arrest rates for blacks were 3.73 times greater than those for whites nationally in 2010. In some counties, the arrest rate was 10 to 30 times greater for blacks. An overall increase in marijuana possession arrests from 2001 to 2010 is largely attributable to drastic increases in arrests of black people.”
This is particularly noteworthy because, as the New York Civil Liberties Union has reported, young black and Hispanic men have been the overwhelming targets of the New York City Police Department’s stop-and-frisk efforts. According to the NYCLU’s report, “Nine out of 10 of people stopped were innocent, meaning they were neither arrested nor ticketed. About 87 percent were black or Latino. White people accounted for only about 10 percent of stops.”
For this reason, stop and frisk has become a defining issue of New York’s Democratic primary for mayor. The candidates have strived to position themselves as the most qualified to end or significantly alter the policy. Bill Thompson, the lone African-American candidate, drew national attention for his passionate speech connecting stop and frisk to the racial profiling that claimed the life of Trayvon Martin. Bill de Blasio, who is white, drew national attention for a series of ads touting his opposition to stop and frisk and featuring his son, who is biracial.
But the president’s increasingly antiquated position on marijuana will continue to tie the hands of politicians like Thompson, de Blasio and others. As long as marijuana possession remains illegal, it will likely continue to serve as another trigger for inequitable justice.