By Horus Alas
4/20 has come and gone once again. While recent Twitter timelines were aflutter with Snoop Dogg memes and cultural paraphernalia, it’s worthwhile to note some of the more pressing real-world implications of the unofficial National Stoners’ Day.
Consider the mechanics of mass incarceration, for example.
The non-partisan Prison Policy Initiative reports that as of March 2018, the United States has the largest per capita prison population in the world; some 2.3 million people in the U.S. are currently behind bars.
Of those, about 450,000 — roughly 23 percent — are incarcerated for drug-related offenses between state, local and federal jails.
It’s difficult to parse out how many of these drug offenses involve marijuana specifically. But to provide some context, the ACLU notes, “Of the 8.2 million marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010, 88 percent were for simply having marijuana … Despite roughly equal usage rates, Blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana.”
This statistical detail, perhaps, should set off a few light bulbs.
“In the 1970s, the numbers of arrests and court caseloads increased, and prosecutors and judges became harsher in their charging and sentencing,” the report reads.
Overall, however, the bulk of new inmates weren’t white, despite their majorities in the general population. New initiatives on crime and drugs since the ’70s have chiefly affected black and Latinx communities, placing them behind bars at much higher rates.
And to what might we attribute this upsurge in incarceration among people of color beginning in the early ’70s?
Check this campaign ad from 1968, in which Richard Nixon narrates against a backdrop of still shots of bloodied protesters and burning buildings, “It is time for an honest look at the problem of order in the United States … Let us recognize that the first right of every American is to be free from domestic violence.”
“So I pledge to you, we shall have order in the United States,” he concludes before the shot transitions to a plain blue screen broadcasting the message, “THIS TIME VOTE LIKE YOUR WHOLE WORLD DEPENDED ON IT.”
In 1968, Nixon campaigned against the upheavals of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements earlier in the decade and built a voter coalition dubbed the “Silent Majority.” These frightened Americans longed for a return to normalcy in the midst of a largely radical, progressive agenda that carried most of the ’60s.
Thus emerged the dichotomy between the suburbs and the inner city.
When Nixon promised order, he wasn’t promising a more egalitarian justice system with well-trained and regulated police. He was instead proclaiming a stringent crackdown on progressive organizers.
Former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman remarked to Dan Baum of Harper’s Magazine, “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people …We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities … Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
The Nixon administration was the first to implement a so-called “War on Drugs.” It famously came to power by inciting anti-progressive fears and vilifying those it disagreed with. It would establish the United States’ legacy as chief jailer nation per capita in the world.
In 2015, President Donald Trump launched his campaign with a rambling speech in which he described Mexican immigrants as “bringing crime” and “rapists.” He also encouraged fear of social and demographic change among a coalition of disaffected white voters. Once in office, he dubbed himself a “law and order” president.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions is pushing a similar “tough on crime” message. In early January, the Sessions-led Justice Department canceled Obama-era guidelines allowing states to legalize marijuana with minimal federal intrusion.
In justifying the move, Sessions spoke of the necessity to, “ disrupt criminal organizations, tackle the growing drug crisis, and thwart violent crime across our country.”
Those would be valid points if marijuana could, in fact, be linked to any of the crises Sessions mentioned.
Nowadays, most marijuana consumed medically or recreationally in the United States is grown on large-scale farm operations and then distributed to dispensaries, wholesalers and individual vendors. Because a number of states have enacted pro-cannabis legislation, it’s hard to qualify growth and distribution channels as “criminal organizations.”
Sessions is correct in affirming the United States currently faces a drug crisis. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that as of March 2018, over 115 people die daily in the United States after overdosing on opioids. Marijuana is yet to have caused a single verifiable overdose death.
And finally, a November 2017 study in The Economic Journal titled, “Is Legal Pot Crippling Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations? The Effect of Medical Marijuana Laws on US Crime” found that in Mexican border states where medical marijuana laws are passed, violent crime rates tend to drop about 13 percent.
Ultimately, none of Sessions’ reasons for stricter enforcement of marijuana law hold up to much scrutiny. But in this reactionary administration, there’s no reason to believe the president and attorney general won’t pursue policies that do more harm than good, so long as they maintain the “us vs. them” mentality among their voter bloc.
As Nixon’s original playbook demonstrates, there are two chief benefits to proclaiming a war on drugs: it allows an administration to easily jail and vilify their opponents and affirms the power structure their political base so desperately wants to cling to.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of Gage Skidmore’s Flickr page.
Horus Alas is a freelance writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.