Jay Z Drops the Mic on Racist Drug Laws

September 20, 2016 - By Melissa Franqui

Hip-hop mogul Jay Z takes on race and the drug war in a hard-hitting animated short that illustrates racist drug laws and disparate law enforcement; policies and policing that have wreaked havoc on the lives and communities of people of color, mostly Black and Latino.

The four-minute work, dubbed From Prohibition to the Gold Rush is narrated by Jay Z and illustrated by famed artist and activist Molly Crabapple. It is part history lesson and part vision statement. Launched on the New York Times website, the film traces the drug war and its impact on Black and Latino communities from President Nixon to draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws, and applies a keen lens on the lack of economic and racial equity in the emerging legal marijuana industry.

With Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Washington D.C. among the first to legalize, most advocates and policy makers see California as the true tipping point for inevitable federal de-scheduling and legalization. Although many believe that marijuana has essentially been legal in California because it was the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996 – it’s not legal yet.

In fact, the truth is sobering. In a recent report, nearly half a million people were arrested in California for marijuana offenses over the last decade, with laws unequally enforced against Blacks and Latinos at staggering rates. Additionally, youth under 18 years of age unconscionably made up the majority of misdemeanor arrests. Again, Black and Latino adults and youth endured the brunt of this excessive policing – breaking up families through incarceration and deportation and ruining life opportunities for every single one of these individuals.

Moreover, explicitly depicted in the video, states where the above-ground market has boomed, nefariously crafted laws prohibit some people from participating in the legal market, mostly people with prior felonies, and even misdemeanors like in Washington State. Prior drug arrests and convictions are largely comprised of low-level and non-violent drug offenses. Therefore, even in the age of legalization, communities of color continue to be negatively impacted, given that the drug war offensive targeted them in the first place. And round and round we go, or as Jay Z quips in the video, “Got it?”

That said, advocates of California’s marijuana legalization ballot measure argue that Prop. 64 goes further than any law before in terms of addressing racial disparities and preventing barriers into the legal industry. The Drug Policy Alliance’s co-collaborator on the video, dream hampton, from Revolve Impact, says,

“As a resident of California, I am especially pleased that this video speaks directly to the heart of economic equity. In November, Californians will have the opportunity to vote Yes on Prop 64, which is the most racial-justice-oriented marijuana legalization measure ever.”

“It not only reduces and in many cases eliminates criminal penalties for marijuana offenses, but it’s retroactive, meaning people needlessly sitting in jail for small amounts of marijuana, can get out and have their records expunged. Plus, it drives hundreds of millions of dollars in direct funding and investments to communities most harmed by police and the criminal justice system,” hampton concluded.

Jay Z said it best at the end of the video, “The War on Drugs is an epic fail.” Its continued systemic ferocity and disproportionate application on Blacks and Latinos amount to nothing short of human rights violations – it’s time for reform.

Melissa Franqui is the communications coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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