(The Root) — In January 2004, then-Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama declared that "the war on drugs has been an utter failure. We need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws … we need to rethink how we're operating in the drug war." As president, Obama has acknowledged the high price paid by the black community, especially in urban areas, where police forces have used the drug war as an excuse to reinstate old racial codes.
President Obama's re-election has given him the dubious honor of being in a position to right these wrongs. Nov. 6 was not just a victory for him but was also a triumph for progressive ballot initiatives: namely, the decriminalization of recreational marijuana use. This past week might very well mark the beginning of the end of the war on drugs as we know it, with recreational use of marijuana becoming legal in the state of Washington as a result of its citizens' vote. Coloradoans approved a similar measure and established an exchange in which citizens can grow and purchase the drug for medicinal use. A recent Quinnipiac poll shows that 54 percent of Americans support legalizing the drug, while 44 percent oppose it.
As states slowly begin to decriminalize marijuana, it remains to be seen whether President Obama and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder will continue to enforce federal oversight to arrest and prosecute offenders, no matter a state's laws. Their decision could have widespread consequences for African Americans — young men in particular. According to Human Rights Watch, whites and blacks commit drug offenses at about the same rate, but blacks are incarcerated for drug-related crimes at an overwhelmingly higher rate. And young African-American males are disproportionately targeted in police actions that amount to "trolling for young black and Latino men" to arrest, according to Queens College professor Harry Levine, who has conducted numerous studies on arrests for marijuana possession.
Is there a reason to hope that change has finally come? Maybe. Then again, maybe not.
Business as Usual?
In 2010 President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which drastically reduced the unfair disparity between crack and powder cocaine and, more important, dropped the five-year mandatory sentence for crack possession. In 2009 President Obama had vowed not to interfere with marijuana distributors and cultivators operating under state laws that sanctioned medicinal use.
But by 2011, federal agents were raiding cultivators in California — a clear departure from Obama's initial rhetoric — and leaving in doubt the future of new state efforts to decriminalize. Just one day before Washington state's historic legislation took full effect, Holder's office released a statement that read, in part, "The Department of Justice is reviewing the legalization initiatives recently passed in Colorado and Washington State. The Department's responsibility to enforce the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged. Neither States nor the Executive branch can nullify a statute passed by Congress."
For many liberals, such a pronouncement is a warning sign that the status quo will remain intact. And for liberals who are keen to see a more progressive Obama in his second term, it raises an immediate red flag. As Katrina vanden Heuvel writes in the Washington Post, "President Obama has a choice. He could direct the Department of Justice to crack down and prevent the two states from moving forward. Or he could finally, fully embrace sensible drug laws."
Unfortunately, black Americans are all too aware of what a "crackdown" entails.
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.
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.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.