Legalizing Weed Alone Won’t End Racist Drug Policing

CREDIT: Flickr Alex B

In the U.S., there is a growing number of people criticizing the “War on Drugs”, a decades old set of policies that aims to reduce the number of people using intoxicants.  One of the obvious arguments against the War on Drugs is how relatively safe marijuana is compared to, for example, its legal counterpart: alcohol.

But there’s another big reason that activists are ready to see the policing tactics of drug enforcement disappear: racial profiling.

Take, for example, a debate that is currently taking place in Atlanta, GA.  The local legislation there is considering the possibility of decriminalizing marijuana, and the driving argument behind it has to do with structural racism within local policing.

About three months ago, two policemen in plain clothes smelled marijuana coming from Deaundre Phillips car.  The police proceeded to shoot the young Black man on the spot, killing him.  This tragedy prompted activists to insist on decriminalization in order to reduce violent police encounters, which disproportionately affect people of color.

It wasn’t a bad concept to say the decriminalization may help ease racial disparities: we know now that Black and White Americans smoke marijuana at about the same rate, yet people of color are four times more likely to be arrested for it.

But the evidence shows that legalization alone just doesn’t work to eliminate structurally racist law enforcement.  For example, in Colorado and Washington, where marijuana has been legalized and therefore arrests have been lowered, there has been no change in the racial disparities in marijuana arrests.

This is something on the radar of the activists behind the Atlanta movement.  Zochitl Berber, head of the Racial Justice Action Center in Atlanta, says:

“Decriminalization makes sense because it lowers the total number of arrests and keeps Black men out of jail.  However, if you change the law but don’t change the culture of the police department, it may not be effective.”

The bottom line is that, in order to address racial disparities in policing, what really must take place is totally new policies that address the issues of arrest quotas, financial incentives and racial profiling.  It’s something marijuana legalizations activists in the U.S. must remember if their efforts are at all rooted in a desire for justice.

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