Drug Policy Reform: The Civil Rights Issue of the 21st Century

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July 2, 2014 - By Dr. Malik Burnett

The year 2014 has seen several significant drug policy reform milestones. And today marks a major historical anniversary in the nation’s efforts toward eliminating discriminatory practices from government policy, and bringing hope to communities of color nationwide.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the implementation of the Civil Rights Act. The embodiment of this hope was captured with the release of the critically acclaimed Sam Cooke single, “A Change is Gonna Come.”

Collectively, as we reflect on the efforts of the last 50 years, it is clear that efforts to eliminate discrimination have come a long way. It also is clear that in spite of the progress made, there are areas where more work needs to be done. The United States Supreme Court decision in Shelby v. Holder, which effectively eliminates the pre-clearance requirement for changes to voting rules in states which have a history of discriminatory voting practices, is probably the most prominent example in the public consciousness.

However, there exists a more insidious and systematic affront to the virtues of civil rights which results in millions of Americans being denied the right to vote, to serve on juries, and to be free of legal discrimination in employment, housing,  access to education and public benefits.  Such is the nature of the system of mass incarceration in American society today.

An opportunity to eliminate some of the inputs to this system is emerging through the implementation of various drug reform policies nationwide, and nowhere is that picture clearer than in the case of marijuana policy. Consider for a moment the results of an ACLU report, “The War on Marijuana in Black and White,” which reveals that in America, Blacks are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession despite equal usage across race.

In Washington, DC, widely considered to be progressive in its public policy, it is even worse with Blacks being eight times more likely to be arrested. Earlier this year the D.C. Council made history passing the most sweeping decriminalization legislation in the nation, set to take effect in two weeks, barring significant federal intervention. This law will hopefully begin eliminating the aforementioned disparities, however when examining other major American cities like New York and Chicago, which have had decriminalization legislation on the books for years, tremendous disparities in arrests of people in communities of color still persist. This is part of the rationale for the broader legalization efforts in Washington, DC, such as the proposed Initiative 71 and a tax and regulate bill, which is being considered the City Council.

In the face of such staggering examples of unequal treatment, it is clear how current drug policy, and particularly marijuana policy, serves as a major input to the system of mass incarceration. Moreover, arrest rates in the previously mentioned major cities should be juxtaposed to the dramatic decline is arrest rates seen in Colorado and Washington which have gone beyond decriminalization to outright legalization of marijuana. By any rational measure of analysis, marijuana use is less problematic than alcohol, while its prohibition has caused untold harm to otherwise productive nonviolent citizens and their families.

What is clear is that drug policy reform is a major civil rights issue in the 21st Century. Overall, what is perhaps most satisfying is the iconic chorus, “It’s been a long, long time coming, but I know change gon’ come,” remains as relevant today, as it was when it first stirred the heart of a nation.

Dr. Malik Burnett is a policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance.

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