|Bishop Ron Allen: “I don’t think they understand how many lives are going to be lost. In our community, legalizing drugs — I don’t think they clearly understand the carnage.”|
A group of black pastors, priests and other religious leaders has come together in recent weeks to peddle Reefer Madness and fight against Proposition 19, the California ballot measure that would legalize, tax and regulate marijuana.
Bishop Ron Allen of the International Faith Based Coalition and his followers have opened a new, potentially crucial front in the battle over Prop 19, reports Jesse McKinley of The New York Times, pitting those afraid of more widespread use of pot against those who see legalization as a sane exit strategy in the war on cannabis.
At a recent rally on the steps of the state capitol in Sacramento, several pastors allied with Allen used over-the-top language trying to inflame a tiny crowd, describing marijuana as “the most sinister drug,” and asking that “the demonic spirits be cast back into hell.”
Allen had already conclusively shown himself to be a wingnut when it comes to marijuana, saying back in January of Rep. Tom Ammiano’s pot legalization bill before the Assembly:
I don’t think they understand how many lives are going to be lost. Are you kidding me? Seriously. In our community, legalizing drugs — I don’t think they clearly understand the carnage.
Now, to hear Allen tell it (as pointed out by Pete Guither over at DrugWarRant.com), legalizing marijuana would somehow kill all these people, and somehow kill a lot more blacks than whites. So, in the absence of some new killer cannabis strain which somehow targets black people, I feel pretty safe in officially designating Bishop Allen a clueless, ignorant asshole.
I mean, holy hell. Is he really suggesting that black people can’t handle marijuana, and if it’s legal, it’ll make them go wild and start killing each other? That’s pretty offensive, there, Bishop Allen.
|Photo: California NAACP|
|Alice Huffman, California NAACP, says her critics “have got their heads in the sand” when it comes to the reality of marijuana use|
Allen has been critical of Alice A. Huffman, the president of the California branch of the NAACP, who is publicly supporting Prop 19. Huffman says marijuana legalization is a potential victory for civil rights that could help reduce the number of young black men jailed on marijuana-related offenses.
“I’m not encouraging anyone to recreationally use marijuana,” Huffman said. “I am simply focused on the injustice and the disparities in the criminal justice system.”
Huffman scoffed at calls for her resignation, saying her critics “have got their heads in the sand” when it comes to the reality of marijuana use, and enforcement, in America.
How black voters in California decide on Prop 19 could be crucial to the success or failure of the measure. Just a couple of years ago, another voter initiative, California’s Proposition 8 (outlawing gay marriage) was passed with heavy African-American support.
Blacks make up less than 10 percent of California’s population, but unlike two other prominent minority groups in the state where opinions on Prop 19 are also split — Asians and Latinos — their “participation in elections is on par with their populations,” according to the California Voter Foundation.
With Prop 19 narrowly trailing in recent polls, appeals to the black vote have begun in earnest, and the measure’s supporters are seeking the backing of major black leaders.
|Photo: Bill Haber/AP|
|Dr. Joycelyn Elders: “We can let police prevent violent crime, or we can accept the status quo.”|
Last week, proponents got a major endorsement, that of Dr. Joycelyn Elders, former U.S. surgeon general and the first African-American to hold that position.
“We can let police prevent violent crime, or we can accept the status quo,” Dr. Elders said, “and keep wasting resources sending tens of thousands of nonviolent marijuana consumers — a disproportionate number who are minorities — to jail.”
This month the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York group which supports Prop 19, released a study showing that blacks were arrested for marijuana possession at far higher rates than whites in California’s 25 largest counties. The arrest rates were often two to three times higher for blacks.
In those 25 counties blacks make up seven percent of the population but account for 20 percent of the marijuana possession arrests.
In Los Angeles County, which has about a quarter of the state’s population, blacks were arrested for cannabis possession at three times the rate of whites.
|Photo: Queens College, CUNY|
|Harry G. Levine, Queens College: “A criminal record lasts a lifetime.”|
The impact of those arrests can be profound, according to the study’s author, Harry G. Levine, a professor of sociology at Queens College who has discovered similar trends in marijuana arrests in New York City.
“A criminal record lasts a lifetime,” Levine said. “The explosive growth of criminal record databases, and the ease with which those databases can be accessed on the Internet, creates barriers to employment, housing and education for anyone simply arrested for drug possession.”
There is little doubt that blacks, particularly black men, bear the brunt of arrests for marijuana, according to Rob MacCoun, professor of law and public safety and the University of California-Berkeley, who has studied marijuana use in America.
“The arrest statistics are disproportionate with respect to African-Americans and disproportionate with respect to use,” MacCoun said. “And that’s very hard to justify in any way.”
|Photo: UC Berkeley|
|Rob MacCoun, UC Berkeley: “The arrest statistics are disproportionate with respect to African-Americans”|
The positioning of Prop 19 as a civil rights issue could be a potent selling point, according to MacCoun.
“I don’t think it’s decisive for all voters,” MacCoun said. “But I think it’s an important argument, and I think it’s going to carry weight with some people.”
A Field Poll taken on July 9 showed that overall support for Prop 19 had dropped to 44 percent, with 48 percent disapproving.
The same poll found that only 40 percent of black voters support Prop 19, with 52 percent opposed. Whites support the measure, 48 to 43 percent.
But MacCoun cautioned that polls could be deceptive in the issue, because of the longtime stigma surrounding marijuana.
“If you get called on the phone, people may be uncomfortable saying that they support a marijuana initiative,” MacCoun said.
“But for years, I’ve had people come up to me — grown-ups in corporate America — and say to me, sotto voce, ‘If it were up to me, I’d legalize it.'”