Pot legalization a civil rights issue?

ABC News reports that the upcoming November ballot initiative to legalize the cultivation, possession, and recreational use of marijuana (the Tax Cannabis Act) is getting support from some unexpected allies.

While the fifty-two percent of Americans nationwide who oppose the legalization of marijuana consists mostly of “older Americans, conservatives, and mothers of teenagers,” California proponents of the Tax Cannabis initiative are creating a broad and diverse coalition of support, including the official endorsement of California NAACP President Alice Huffman.

“In California African Americans make up 7 percent of the population, but 22 percent of the marijuana arrests,” Huffman says. She continues:

     I see it as a civil rights issue because so many of our young people get their start in the criminal justice system over a joint… if we want to rescue our young people and keep them out of prison, we have to not only attack the education system but also the dysfunctional parts of the system that’s criminalizing our children disproportionately and causing them lifelong harm.

While critics may decry the California NAACP for “race-baiting,” the facts are on Huffman’s side. According to the California Department of Justice, “Marijuana possession arrests of teenagers of color rose from 3,100 in 1990 to 16,300 in 2008 — an arrest surge that is 300 percent greater than population growth in that group.”

Indeed the civil rights aspect of marijuana legalization takes on a poignant historical character in light of circumstances surrounding its prohibition. Before the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, it was legal to cultivate, possess, and use the plant in the United States. Proponents of the act rallied support by using racially charged imagery against a drug that was predominately used by African Americans at the time- particularly in America’s vibrant jazz music scene.

One of the leaders of the movement to ban pot, Harry J. Anslinger, coordinated a campaign of propaganda to convince white Americans that marijuana use made African Americans violent and lascivious. He also wrote articles that included extremely offensive and very racist statements such as:

“Colored students at the Univ. of Minn. partying with (white) female students, smoking [marijuana] and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result: pregnancy”

“…the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races”

“Two Negros took a girl fourteen years old and kept her for two days under the influence of hemp. Upon recovery she was found to be suffering from syphilis.”

With black Americans suffering disproportionately from the criminalization of marijuana, and a long, ugly history behind its original prohibition, it’s not hard to see why the California NAACP considers support for the Tax Cannabis Act to be a civil rights issue.