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Decriminalize marijuana: End prosecutorial discrimination against blacks

Melvin B. Miller | 8/13/2014, 12:45 p.m.
Studies have shown marijuana to be far less harmful than alcohol, yet its continued status as an illegal drug contributes ...
“Don’t those kids know that smoking pot is against the law?” Photo by Dan Drew

Debate over the decriminalization of marijuana fails to consider the enormous adverse impact on African Americans of the present status of the law. That policy is especially discriminatory since society accepts and ignores the substantial costs of alcoholism. Also, the original American aversion to the consumption of alcoholic beverages undoubtedly influences a reluctance of public acceptance of marijuana.

American abhorrence to drinking was once so great that opponents were able to obtain ratification of a prohibition amendment to the U.S. Constitution (the 18th Amendment) in 1919. It authorized Congress and the states to pass laws to destroy the liquor industry. Prohibition did not officially end until 1933 when the 21st Amendment to the Constitution changed the law.

Now, 80 years later, society accepts the enormous cost of heavy drinking. According to the Centers for Disease Control, alcoholism costs the U.S. $223.5 billion per year. About 72 percent is from lost productivity, 11 percent are health care costs, 9 percent is from criminal justice costs and 8 percent result from physical and medical disorders.

Some of the results of excessive drinking are fatal. According to the CDC research, about 79,000 Americans die every year from alcohol related causes, such as auto accidents and homicides. The CDC finds that there are more than twice as many deaths from alcoholism as from drug overdose.

A concern of opponents of decriminalization is that marijuana can have a harmful effect on the mental development of young users. There seems to be insufficient evidence to establish this. It is well known, however, that the arrest and imprisonment of black males charged with possession is disruptive to the black family.

A comprehensive report by the American Civil Liberties Union found that blacks are 3.7 times more likely than whites to be arrested for possession of marijuana, although studies indicate that their use of the drug is no greater than that of whites. And blacks are ten times more likely than whites to go to prison for drug offenses.

An arrest record or felony conviction will impose an economic burden on anyone, especially a black male seeking employment. Decriminalization will remove for everyone the threat of such a stigma.