The New Face of the Marijuana Movement

It isn’t about drugs. It’s about justice.

National Journal
Nov. 12, 2014, 1 a.m.

It’s a sunny Monday after the elec­tion, and the Rev. Teresa Small­wood of the Is­rael Baptist Church in North­east D.C. is ex­plain­ing why she de­cided to cam­paign vo­cally for an ul­ti­mately suc­cess­ful meas­ure to leg­al­ize marijuana.

A warm, be­spec­tacled Afric­an-Amer­ic­an wo­man in her mid-50s, Small­wood doesn’t look like your typ­ic­al poster child of the marijuana-re­form move­ment, and un­til just a few weeks ago, she wasn’t. “As an in­di­vidu­al I do not sup­port the use of marijuana,” she tells me in a meet­ing room just off the church’s main sanc­tu­ary. “And if the ra­cist con­nec­tion hadn’t been made, I can’t say I would have joined the ef­fort to leg­al­ize as quickly.”

Small­wood got on board after loc­al ad­voc­ates called her up to lay out the prob­lems with the law from a civil rights per­spect­ive. While whites and Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans use marijuana in roughly equal meas­ure, 91 per­cent of all marijuana ar­rests in the Dis­trict were of Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans, ac­cord­ing a re­port by the Amer­ic­an Civil Liber­ties Uni­on’s D.C. chapter, which ana­lyzed ar­rests by po­lice dis­trict. And while the num­ber of whites ar­res­ted for marijuana stayed roughly con­stant between 2001 and 2010, the num­ber of Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans ar­res­ted rose from 3,228 to 4,908 des­pite an in­flux of white, Asi­an, and His­pan­ic res­id­ents dur­ing that peri­od.

Num­bers like that were enough to get Small­wood to join nearly a dozen oth­er in­ter­faith lead­ers from around the Dis­trict in an Oc­to­ber press con­fer­ence call­ing for an end to the pro­hib­i­tion of marijuana in Wash­ing­ton. “I’m an as­so­ci­ate min­is­ter with a brain and the abil­ity to ar­tic­u­late my be­liefs,” she said, adding that the cur­rent sys­tem of con­trolling marijuana is de­struct­ive for fam­il­ies in the Afric­an-Amer­ic­an com­munity.

Amid in­creas­ing aware­ness of ra­cial in­equal­it­ies in drug-policy en­force­ment, that mes­sage ap­pears to have struck a nerve.

On Nov. 4, D.C. res­id­ents voted re­sound­ingly for Ini­ti­at­ive 71, a meas­ure which would al­low res­id­ents to pos­sess up to 2 ounces of marijuana and grow up to three plants in the pri­vacy of their homes. While it’s less en­com­passing than some of the move­ment’s oth­er re­cent wins, which leg­al­ized the sale as well as the pos­ses­sion of marijuana, the cam­paign in D.C. marked the first time re­formers framed the de­bate so starkly in terms of race.

“This is the first place in the coun­try where the dis­course has been fo­cused around the ques­tion of ra­cial justice—and the way in which the war on drugs and the war on marijuana in par­tic­u­lar has been used to dis­en­fran­chise Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans,” said Seema Sadanandan, policy and ad­vocacy dir­ect­or for the ACLU of D.C.

Work­ing in con­junc­tion with the ACLU, the D.C. chapter of Drug Policy Al­li­ance used slo­gans like “Leg­al­iz­a­tion Ends Dis­crim­in­a­tion” and “Re­fo­cus Po­lice Re­sources” to un­der­score prob­lems with ex­ist­ing en­force­ment prac­tices.

Oth­er states, mean­while, have framed leg­al­iz­a­tion as a mat­ter of health con­cerns or eco­nom­ic im­per­at­ives.

In Alaska, for in­stance, the Marijuana Policy Pro­ject poured hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars in­to an ul­ti­mately suc­cess­ful cam­paign to reg­u­late marijuana like al­co­hol. Pot ad­voc­ates there and in Col­or­ado felt that dis­pelling fears about the harms of marijuana by con­trast­ing it to al­co­hol was the best ap­proach, while Ore­gon and Wash­ing­ton state ar­gued that leg­al­iz­a­tion is safer than pro­hib­i­tion. (MPP is already at work on ef­forts to push sim­il­ar bal­lot meas­ures in an­oth­er five states in 2016.)

But D.C.’s ef­fort was more pop­u­lar than any statewide ini­ti­at­ive in the coun­try, passing with nearly 70 per­cent of the vote—all but one of D.C.’s 143 pre­cincts voted for it. Meas­ures in Ore­gon and Alaska passed with 56 per­cent and 52 per­cent of the vote, re­spect­ively, while ini­ti­at­ives in Col­or­ado and Wash­ing­ton state passed in 2012 with 55 per­cent and 56 per­cent.

There are caveats to draw­ing too many les­sons from those num­bers. D.C. is, after all, not a state and func­tions in many ways much more like an urb­an metro area. It’s also over­whelm­ingly pro­gress­ive. Yet there’s ample evid­ence that the suc­cess of the ini­ti­at­ive in the Dis­trict was due in no small part to the fact that the mes­sage simply res­on­ated. Deeply.

A Wash­ing­ton Post poll shows that while Dis­trict res­id­ents were split evenly on leg­al­iz­a­tion four years ago, by Janu­ary of 2014 they sup­por­ted leg­al sales of marijuana for per­son­al use by al­most 2-to-1. The shift in opin­ion with­in the Afric­an-Amer­ic­an com­munity was par­tic­u­larly pro­nounced. While just 37 per­cent of Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans in the Dis­trict sup­por­ted leg­al­iz­ing pos­ses­sion of small amounts of the drug in 2010, by 2014 that num­ber had jumped to 58 per­cent. This as crim­in­al-justice re­form has emerged na­tion­ally as a pos­sible area for bi­par­tis­an con­sensus.

Wheth­er the em­phas­is would work as well in whiter cit­ies is un­clear. A re­cent study pub­lished in Psy­cho­lo­gic­al Sci­ence, for in­stance, sug­gests telling white people the crim­in­al-justice sys­tem is ra­cist ac­tu­ally makes them more likely to sup­port it. And Marijuana Ma­jor­ity’s Tom An­gell thinks D.C.’s tailored cam­paign­ing might not be the best choice every­where. “Ra­cial-justice mes­saging about marijuana re­form clearly res­on­ates with some con­stitu­en­cies—like pro­gress­ives and people of col­or—bet­ter than oth­ers,” he said. “It’s a good thing that there are so many real and le­git­im­ate reas­ons to change marijuana laws that ad­voc­ates can choose from.”

Still, D.C. ad­voc­ates cer­tainly see pos­sib­il­ity in mak­ing ra­cial in­justice the dom­in­ant paradigm for re­form.

“It will be fun­da­ment­ally dif­fer­ent from the way it’s been done all across the coun­try,” Ma­lik Bur­nett, a former sur­geon and policy man­ager at DPA, said of the way the Dis­trict’s new leg­al­iz­a­tion ini­ti­at­ive will be rolled out. “Hope­fully it will be a mod­el for how marijuana leg­al­iz­a­tion pro­ceeds go­ing for­ward.”

D.C.’s new­est bal­lot meas­ure builds on a series of oth­er moves to re­move re­stric­tions on marijuana in the Dis­trict. Med­ic­al marijuana was first leg­al­ized in D.C. in 2010, though the first med­ic­al-marijuana dis­pens­ary didn’t open un­til last year. And earli­er this year, the D.C. Coun­cil de­crim­in­al­ized the pos­ses­sion of an ounce or less of marijuana, re­du­cing the pen­alty to a $25 fine.

The latest D.C. cam­paign was in­spired in part by an in­sight made by Michelle Al­ex­an­der, au­thor of The New Jim Crow: Mass In­car­cer­a­tion in the Age of Col­orblind­ness, who said in a re­cent con­ver­sa­tion with DPA’s Asha Ban­dele that cer­tain things about how leg­al­iz­a­tion was hap­pen­ing else­where in the coun­try didn’t sit right with her. “Here are white men poised to run big marijuana busi­nesses, dream­ing of cash­ing in big—big money, big busi­nesses selling weed—after 40 years of im­pov­er­ished black kids get­ting pris­on time for selling weed, and their fam­il­ies and fu­tures des­troyed. Now, white men are plan­ning to get rich do­ing pre­cisely the same thing?”

That ob­ser­va­tion, and oth­ers like it, spurred D.C. re­formers like Coun­cil­mem­ber Dav­id Grosso, who helped bol­ster Ini­ti­at­ive 71 earli­er this year, to em­phas­ize that if and when a sys­tem for tax­ing and reg­u­lat­ing marijuana is set up in the Dis­trict, the pro­ceeds should go to help com­munit­ies hard­est hit by the war on drugs.

While D.C. has yet to es­tab­lish a sys­tem for tax­ing and reg­u­lat­ing the sale of pot, and Con­gress could in­ter­vene to make im­ple­ment­a­tion im­possible (yet an­oth­er ra­cially-loaded justice is­sue), Grosso is already tick­ing off what he would like to see done with any pos­sible fu­ture profits. In­centiv­iz­ing small black-owned marijuana busi­nesses, in­vest­ing in job train­ing east of the Anacos­tia River, and sub­sid­iz­ing more af­ford­able hous­ing all make his short list of ways to give back to af­fected com­munit­ies. “That we do some form of re­par­a­tions for the com­munit­ies that were heav­ily im­pacted in the Dis­trict—that’s something I def­in­itely want to do,” Grosso con­cluded.

Back in the meet­ing room of the Is­rael Baptist Church, Small­wood tells me nas­cent ef­forts like these, ones which would pro­mote re­par­a­tions for dam­aged com­munit­ies, are pre­cisely the reas­on she wanted to get in­volved. “The church has a re­spons­ib­il­ity to the poor,” she said, smooth­ing her red sweat­er, the small sil­ver ankh around her neck glint­ing. “Is it a mat­ter of justice to leg­al­ize marijuana? Well, it is if you see that en­force­ment has a ra­cial an­im­us.”

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