The War on Black People Intersects with Weed

Cannabis reform and civil rights go together

We can talk all we want about “defunding the police,” and cutting way back on law enforcement in American cities. But until cannabis is legalized in every state, real police reform “cannot happen,” according to Neill Franklin, executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a group that encourages cops who are genuinely interested in reducing crime to support reforming drug laws.

Of course, as we’ve seen in recent weeks, a lot of cops aren’t interested so much in reducing crime as they are in simply fighting it, and in busting heads.

But there really are police officers who see themselves as serving the public interest, and Franklin is a pretty much perfect example: over his 34-year career as a cop, he worked as a narcotics officer for the Maryland State Police, and as a trainer for the Baltimore Police Department. Soon after a friend of his on the state police force was gunned down during a drug sting, he heard Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke declare that the “war on drugs” had to be abandoned, and he signed on to that idea. He left police work and founded LEAP in 2010.

The fact that cannabis legalization is finally happening on a state-by-state basis is great, Franklin said last week during a Zoom meeting of advocates for cannabis reform and civil rights. But, he said, it can’t be seen merely as a money-making effort, it must also be seen as a “window of opportunity for domestic police reform.” If cannabis remains prohibited anywhere in the country, real police reform won’t happen, he said. “It has to be coast to coast.”

A lot of white people hear stuff like that and wonder how addressing a single issue can be a necessary component of remaking our police departments. Every participant in the Zoom meeting could tell them: it’s because cannabis prohibition was devised in the first place as a means for cops to harass Blacks and Latinos, and has been used for its intended purpose ever since. The confab, organized by the Marijuana Policy Project, was called “Reimagining Justice: Race, Cannabis and Policing.” You can find it on Youtube.

The “war on drugs” is often dated to 1971, when President Nixon used the phrase to announce a set of initiatives meant to combat the supposed “scourge” of drug use, which he linked to crime. It was, and remains, “a way to stunt the growth of African Americans,” said Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP.

All along, the war on drugs has really been a “war on black people,” said Natalie Papillion. But, she noted, the war had been raging for decades before Nixon gave it a name. “The sordid history of the criminalization of cannabis, and its racist and xenophobic origins, begins much earlier” than Nixon, she said.

Weed was particularly popular among jazz musicians and aficionados in the ’20s and ’30s. There’s a reason so much anti-jazz propaganda of the time looked a lot like “Reefer Madness”style propaganda. It was really all one thing. Not only was jazz popular among black people, but—even worse in the eyes of “law and order” types—it was increasingly integrated. Cops started busting up jazz clubs, keeping a special eye out for anybody who might have marijuana on them. They targeted clubs not primarily because they were crime hubs, but simply to target blacks. For instance, in Chicago, the clubs with connections to the mob were generally left unmolested, while blues and jazz joints on the South Side were routinely raided, simply to target blacks.

Harry Anslinger, a former prohibition officer who was censured several times for using racist language on the floor of Congress, led these efforts on the federal level. He was put in charge of the FBI’s marijuana enforcement. As you read this, some cop somewhere is searching someone’s car because he or she supposedly smelled marijuana coming from it, which still amounts to probable cause to conduct a search in many states. That, Papillion noted, is Harry Anslinger’s legacy as much as it is Richard Nixon’s.


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