On a plane out to Denver in July, I wondered if I would be able to tell that Colorado had legalized the use of recreational marijuana or if the law’s effects would be undetectable. In the half-block’s walk from a bus to my hotel, the answer was clear. The smoke I had to walk through was so thick, that it’s probably not random that the first thing I did in my hotel room was order pizza.
It was quite the thing to see: People on a public sidewalk, puffing without fear of blue lights, handcuffs, court rooms and employment-damaging criminal records. It got me to wondering: If Colorado lets people get high, then what’s the go-to excuse for scooping up black people and jailing them?
Here’s hoping you’re not one of those people who’s still pretending that the War on Drugs has been a war on drugs. Even if you question the veracity of the quote posthumously attributed to President Richard Nixon’s aide John Ehrlichman that the drug war was their cover to target black people (and hippies), there are plenty of crime statistics that validate the claim. In addition to that, there are public surveys from the ’70s that belie Nixon’s assertion in 1971 that drug abuse was “public enemy number one in the United States.” In “Making Crime Pay: Law and Order in Contemporary American Politics,” author Katherine Beckett points out that “the percentage of poll respondents identifying drug abuse as the nation’s most important problem had dropped from 20% in 1973 to 2% in 1974 and hovered between 0% and 2% until 1982.”
It should be obvious that I don’t want Colorado law enforcement officials to have a ready-made excuse to jail black people, but I do know that drug laws have provided an excuse to focus on minority populations, much like the anti-vagrancy laws Southern jurisdictions passed after the Civil War, the anti-zoot-suit law Los Angeles passed in the 1940s and modern-day proposals to criminalize the wearing of sagging jeans.
Yes, there are white people incarcerated on drug charges; no, the laws don’t say drugs are wrong for some and right for others. But as we see in “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” our “formally colorblind” drug war produces “racially discriminatory results” because law enforcement officers have “extraordinary discretion regarding whom to stop, search, arrest and charge for drug offenses.”
“Unbridled discretion,” author Michelle Alexander writes, “inevitably creates huge racial disparities.”
According to the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 53.7 percent of white people over age 12 report having used illicit drugs at some point, compared to 46 percent of their black counterparts. When asked about illicit drug usage in the previous month, 11 percent of white people and 13 percent of black people said yes. Black people are “12.5% of illicit drug users,” the NAACP says on its website, “but 29% of those arrested for drug offenses and 33% of those incarcerated in state facilities for drug…