Editor’s note: We endeavor to bring you the top voices on current events representing a range of perspectives. Below is a column arguing that police departments in the United States need long-term reforms to overcome systemic racism, especially an end to the War on Drugs. You can find a counterpoint here, where Paris Dennard, Senior Communications Advisor for Black Media Affairs at the Republican National Committee, argues that defunding the police will destabilize urban communities that want more, not less, policing.
The Black Lives Matter protests after the killing of George Floyd reflect the public’s justified anger with police violence that is enabled, in part, by qualified immunity, police militarization, police unions that protect bad cops and the lack of a proper insurance market that would increase accountability of law enforcement. Yet, there is another decades-old policy still looming over the country that police use as a pretense to arrest and abuse Americans, especially African Americans —the war on drugs.
Fortunately for Americans, cell phone cameras are now providing videos that vividly demonstrate what decades of data have long shown—that abusive police using military-like tactics and the ongoing drug war have played a role in the systemic racism of the criminal justice system that has decimated many black families and communities.
The infamous 2016 revelation of former President Richar Nixon aide John Ehrlichman made the purpose of the war on drugs clear: “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,” Ehrlichman said. “We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
And that drug war lives on today. In 2018, there were 1.65 million drug-related arrests, including 663,000 arrests for marijuana-related offenses in the US, according to Pew Research. “In 2018, 92% of marijuana arrests were for possession and 8% were for selling or manufacturing,” Pew reports.
“Black people are consistently arrested, charged and convicted of drug crimes including possession, distribution and conspiracy at far higher rates than white people. This, despite research showing that both races use and sell drugs at about the same rate,” writes Radley Balko, author of the Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces and an opinion writer at The Washington Post.
“Despite roughly equal usage rates, Blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana,” the American Civil Liberties Union found.
In most states, even some that have legalized medical marijuana, simple marijuana possession of less than an ounce can still be a felony offense. If someone also happens to be expressing their Second Amendment right by carrying a weapon while in possession of any amount of a federally illegal drug, including medical marijuana, it triggers an automatic felony charge.
A felony conviction can permanently alter the course of someone’s life, making it difficult to find employment, reducing financing options for people seeking home or business loans, and even taking away voting rights. Mounting a legal defense against a felony charge often costs around $10,000. Those trials often come down to the word of the defendant against the word of the state, which has far too often been a near-certain loss for defendants in the past.
“In 2018, more than a third of young adults aged 18 to 25 (34.8 percent) were past-year users of marijuana,” according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). So it is easy to see how the war on drugs continues to be used by law enforcement as a means to target and harass people, particularly African Americans. The police are often brazen about stopping, searching, and harassing people. If they were wrong about stopping someone, they can just let them go and never document it. If they make a more serious mistake, the blue code of protecting bad cops kicks in or they get qualified immunity.
“Qualified immunity protects police and other officials from consequences even for horrific rights abuses,” said Rep. Justin Amash (L-Mich.) said when he and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) introduced the Ending Qualified Immunity Act. “It prevents accountability for the ‘bad apples’ and undermines the public’s faith in law enforcement. It’s at odds with the text of the law and the intent of Congress, and it ultimately leaves Americans’ rights without appropriate protection.”
One needs to look no further than the current protests to feel the immense and overwhelming pain that has been unjustly inflicted on African Americans. It is well past time to end the drug war, to legalize most simple drug possession — especially marijuana — and end practices like qualified immunity so that police are stripped of the protections unique to their industry.
Spencer Purnell is a policy analyst at Reason Foundation.