Opinion Brief

Marijuana legalization: The race debate

A ballot measure in California that would decriminalize pot is dividing the state's black community

Proposition 19, California's ballot measure to decriminalize marijuana, is emerging as a wedge issue in the black community. Many African-Americans, particularly in the religious community, oppose the initiative on the grounds that pot use can lead to abuse of more harmful drugs like crack cocaine. Other black activists, however (including California's NAACP), say that African-Americans are disproportionately arrested for marijuana possession, and decriminalization would keep many young black men out of jail. Is decriminalization emerging as a race issue in California? (Watch a local report about the marijuana divide)

So long as our drug laws are racist, it will be nothing else: Of course marijuana is a race issue, says Leonard Pitts Jr. in the Miami Herald. When, in some states, "black men are jailed on drug charges at a rate 50 times higher than whites," it can't be anything else. These "absurd" sentencing rates "constitute nothing less than a new racial caste system." If the disastrous War on Drugs has taught us anything, it's that we must prioritize "treatment over incarceration." California's new law is a step in the right direction."Legalizing marijuana as civil rights issue"

This law would make drugs even more of a race issue in California: Legalizing marijuana would be disastrous for the black community, says Bishop Ron Allen, quoted in the Drug War Chronicle. It's "still a gateway drug," and these days marijuana is often laced with stronger, more addictive chemicals. Legalizing it will lead to "drug babies, more murders, [and] more rapes" — and, ultimately, "more incarceration of the black man, not less.""Race and reefer -- the African American vote in California's marijuana legalization initiative"

The benefits of California's bill transcend racial politics: I sympathize with the concerns of Ron Allen, says Cynthia Tucker at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "But marijuana is no more a 'gateway drug' than alcohol is." The truth is that many Americans — white and black — use pot recreationally without graduating to harder drugs. The advantages of California's ballot go beyond racial politics. It could "cripple the Mexican drug trade, free prison beds for violent criminals, and allow police to concentrate on violent crimes." "Black California activists divided over legal marijuana"

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