9 States to Vote on Marijuana Initiatives: Will They Stop Jailing Young People of Color over Weed?

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On November 8, 35 states and the District of Columbia will confront 156 ballot initiatives on issues ranging from universal healthcare to gun sale restrictions and death penalty reforms. One of the most contentious ballot initiatives concerns marijuana legalization. After next week’s election, marijuana could be legal for medical or recreational use in 29 states. Currently about 5 percent of Americans live in states where they can legally smoke cannabis, but after November that figure could rise to 25 percent. California is the biggest of the nine states casting a ballot on the measure. While other states are voting on medicinal use, Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada are with California in voting on legalizing the recreational use of marijuana. The “yes” vote is currently leading in all five states and is widely supported by young voters from both major parties. California legalized the medical use of marijuana 20 years ago. Polls in California show strong support for Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act. We speak with Deborah Small, founder of Break the Chains: Communities of Color and the War on Drugs. Her recent piece for The Root is headlined “How We Can Reap Reparations from Marijuana Reform.” She’s a longtime advocate for drug decriminalization.

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JUAN GONZÁLEZ: On November 8th, 35 states and the District of Columbia will confront 156 ballot initiatives on issues ranging from universal healthcare to gun sale restrictions and death penalty reforms. One of the most contentious ballots is on marijuana legalization. After next week’s election, marijuana could be legal for medical or recreational use in 29 states. Currently about 5 percent of Americans live in states where they can legally smoke cannabis, but after November that figure could rise to 25 percent. California is the biggest of the nine states casting a ballot on the measure. While other states are voting on medicinal use, Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada are with California in voting on legalizing the recreational use of marijuana. The “yes” vote is currently leading in all five states and is widely supported by young voters from both major parties. California legalized the medical use of marijuana 20 years ago.

AMY GOODMAN: Polls in California show strong support for Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act. This is an ad made by Yes on 64.

YES ON 64 AD: Prop 64 makes marijuana legal in California for adults 21 and over. And here’s what else it does: bans marijuana use in public; permits sales only at licensed marijuana businesses, not at grocery or convenience stores. And Prop 64 generates a billion in new tax revenue for California to fund after-school programs and job training and placement initiatives. Learn more at YesOn64.org. Vote yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is an ad made by No on Prop 64.

NO ON PROP 64 AD: Proposition 64 will allow marijuana smoking ads in prime time and on programs with millions of children and teenage viewers. Children could be exposed to ads promoting marijuana gummy candy and brownies, the same products blamed for a spike in emergency room visits in Colorado. Fatalities doubled in marijuana-related car crashes after legalization in Washington state. Yet, in California, Proposition 64 doesn’t even include a DUI standard. Prop 64, they got it wrong again.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about Prop 64, we’re going to San Diego, California, to speak with Deborah Small, founder of Break the Chains: Communities of Color and the War on Drugs. Her recent piece for The Root is headlined “How We Can Reap Reparations from Marijuana Reform.” She’s a longtime advocate for drug decriminalization.

Deborah Small, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s good to have you with us. It’s a major day around the issue of drug decriminalization on Tuesday. Can you talk about what’s at stake—in the country, the number of propositions, and in California?

DEBORAH SMALL: Well, thank you so much for having me on again today, Amy.

And I’m so happy, because I really think that we’re going to see positive results in the election next week and that all of the states that are considering legalizing marijuana are going to approve it, and that that’s going to be a major blow in our campaign to dismantle the war on drugs, because, contrary to public opinion, you know, the war on drugs really is substantially a war on weed. More than half of all drug arrests in the country every year are for marijuana possession charges or marijuana-related charges. So, making this move to legalize recreational use of marijuana for the majority of Americans around the country is going to substantially reduce the ability of law enforcement to use marijuana law enforcement as a target, particularly in communities of color and particularly among youth of color. In our view, in many cases, the arrest for marijuana possession acts as a sort of Head Start to prison for youth of color, because it begins the process of having them come into contact with the criminal justice system, having their names and fingerprints entered into databases. It makes them much more likely to be under surveillance and much more likely to be arrested again subsequently for other activities.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Deborah, why are so many of marijuana growers in California opposed to this particular referendum? And how do you respond to their charges that this is going to basically corporatize the sale of marijuana and allow major businesses to push—not only to push out small growers of marijuana, but also to make the price of marijuana too high for low-income people?

DEBORAH SMALL: Well, I mean, to be honest, I think one of the reasons that many of the growers currently are opposed to the initiative is because they’ve been operating in sort of a quasi-legal status for a while, which means that in many places they haven’t had to face a lot of regulation and a lot of taxes. But what I think it’s important for people to know is that California passed a comprehensive series of state regulations last year to govern the medical marijuana industry, which is going to get carried forward into the recreational industry. But most of these growers would be facing increased cost and increased regulations regardless of whether or not Prop 64 passes, because the state has finally decided that they want to fully bring the industry out of the shadow and actually control it. So—and that, of course, for some people, is going to be problematic, but Prop 64 actually anticipates that, in that it bans large-scale cultivation for the first five years, in an effort to make it possible for smaller growers to actually be able to scale up and to be able to compete with larger cultivators when they’re able to come in.

AMY GOODMAN: Deborah Small, can you talk about the experience of Colorado? And has that influenced how this proposition was shaped?

DEBORAH SMALL: Yes, it has. I mean, I think that one of the things that we all feel really good about is that in drafting the California initiative, we really made an effort to learn from what happened in Washington state and Colorado, so that, contrary to what the No on 64 people say, the initiative will not allow advertising, either targeting children or others, on TV. There will be no marijuana ads on TV for youth or adults after Prop 64 is passed. We also included very strict safeguards around labeling and marketing, to make sure that all the products would be child-proof, that they’re going to be inspected by the Department of Public Health, and there will even be a limit on the amount of THC that can be included in edible products, in order to avoid the problem of accidental overdoses that they’ve seen in Colorado. So I think that, on that level, the California initiative actually moves forward in terms of protecting public health.

But from my perspective, what’s equally important is the fact that it, one, will allow for—it will substantially reduce penalties for all marijuana—what are currently crimes will now just be infractions. But more importantly, it has retroactive effect, so it means all the people who have previous marijuana convictions for things that no longer would be crimes under California law will be able to apply to have their records expunged. And people who are currently in jail for marijuana-related charges will be able to go to court and petition for release. And to me, as a person who’s focused on the impact of drug law enforcement and marijuana law enforcement on communities of color, this retroactive part is really important because of all of the ways in which an arrest record continues to haunt people throughout the rest of their lives.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And if Proposition 64 passes, how would it relate to federal law, which obviously the sale of marijuana is still a federal offense, especially in lieu of the fact that banks that are federally regulated would supposedly be providing loans to growers who want to establish marijuana businesses?

DEBORAH SMALL: Well, there’s the rub, because, quite frankly, one of the major problems that has been faced by businesses in Colorado and Washington and Oregon and Alaska is the fact that federal law still doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of marijuana, even for medical usage, which means that people can’t always use credit cards in their businesses, and they can’t open bank accounts. And we know that the DEA, just this past August, refused the petition to reschedule marijuana below Schedule 1, which would allow some liberality, some loosening of these regulations and restrictions.

So, one of the things that Prop 64, when it passes, will do is put more pressure on the federal government to begin to align its policy with the will of the people. We know that 57 percent of Americans support marijuana legalization. And a larger number of them support decriminalization. They don’t believe that people should be arrested for this. They don’t believe that it should be treated like a crime. And so, the fact that our federal government still maintains policies that treats marijuana worse than heroin and cocaine, and doesn’t allow legitimate businesses that are licensed and regulated in their states to operate legally, is a major problem. And we believe that the federal government will have to change, because this is a train that has left the station. The people are clearly in support of this. And so, the major problem is to get Congress and our federal officials to actually begin to, you know, accede to the demands of the people around this area.

AMY GOODMAN: So, we’re going to go—we’re going to go to some of the voices opposed, against Prop 64. This is the former drug policy adviser to President Obama, Kevin Sabet. He is president and CEO of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, or SAM. Here is Sabet talking with The Daily Signal.

KEVIN SABET: I don’t think young black men, or anybody, should get a criminal record for low-level use. You know, I don’t think that we should spend our law enforcement time jailing or imprisoning marijuana users. But to solve that problem, you don’t need to go to the other extreme of creating Big Tobacco 2.0. Make no mistake about it: Legalization is not about, you know, Cheech & Chong smoking marijuana or, you know, a Grateful Dead concert; it’s about creating the next Marlboro of our time, the next Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds, the Big Tobacco all over again. We are just coming out of a 100-year stupor from being lied to by the tobacco industry for a century about the effects on young people, on cancer, these candy cigarettes that they promised had nothing to do with kids, Joe Camel that they promised was focused on the, you know, 55-year-old white male smoker, which we know is wrong. And we finally got out of that. Why in the world would we want to create the same thing, just not Big Tobacco this time, Big Marijuana? I don’t get it. Some people think we got to do that to get rid of the disproportionate arrests. I say get rid of the disproportionate arrests. Don’t create Big Tobacco 2.0.

AMY GOODMAN: In another interview with BBC Newsnight, the president’s former drug policy adviser, Kevin Sabet, talked about the relationship between drug use and criminal activity.

KEVIN SABET: The issue is, you do not have to go to either criminalizing and throwing people in prison. I don’t think you should do that for people who are using any drugs. I think they absolutely need treatment. But we don’t want to increase the availability, promotion and commercialization that would absolutely come with this idea of legalization. … There’s a very complex connection between crime and addiction, because a lot of people are committing crime to either fuel their drug habit, which they’re going to do anyway, whether it’s legal or not, or under the influence of drugs, which they’re going to do more, if it’s legal.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s the former drug policy adviser to President Obama, Kevin Sabet. Deborah Small, your response?

DEBORAH SMALL: So, you know, it’s funny, because these are the same arguments that were made in '96, when Californians were considering Prop 215 to legalize medical marijuana. People said that it would increase use, that it would increase drugged driving, that it would create all kinds of problems, it would increase crime, etc. None of those things have happened. You know, one of the reasons that there is so much public support for these initiatives is that we've now had enough experience in enough states for people to actually understand that these arguments don’t work. And to say that, you know, having marijuana legalization is going to lead to Big Tobacco, all we have to do is look abroad at the other countries that have liberalized their marijuana laws to see that that’s not the case. I just came from Amsterdam last month. And, to me, that’s the future of marijuana legalization. And what I want people to know is that the future of marijuana legalization is boring. When you go into any place in Amsterdam, it’s the same as going to a restaurant or to a bar. People order weed the way they would order a glass of wine. They sit and use with their other adult friends in a completely responsible way. They’ve actually seen a decrease in addiction to harder drugs since the Netherlands liberalized their marijuana laws. They haven’t seen an increase in crime among youth or any other group. And because of regulation, they actually have better control over the products that people are accessing. So I think that Kevin Sabet is running a line that we’ve heard before, but which experience tells us is different.

And with respect to the harms associated with marijuana use, there are no drugs that people can use that don’t have some harms associated with them. That’s true whether or not you’re talking about coffee, tobacco, alcohol, Ambien or any number of other products that people put into their body.

But the issue here is: How do you promote responsible use? How do you promote moderate use? And quite frankly, none of that can be done in prohibition scheme. The whole problem with prohibition, in general, is that it drives people to use drugs in more dangerous ways. And while Kevin would like people to believe that the issue can be solved through decriminalization, I think that you, Amy and Juan, know, living in New York City, that decrim is not enough. New York decriminalized marijuana possession in 1977. In 1997 and 2007, New York City was leading the country in arresting people for marijuana possessions, because decrim alone is not enough. It’s only legalization that’s going to provide real protection for vulnerable people.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Deborah Small, we talked earlier about the conflict between federal law and some of these legalization initiatives. The Obama administration has basically chosen not to prioritize the enforcement of federal marijuana laws. What’s your sense of where the candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are on this issue?

DEBORAH SMALL: Well, I think that it’s pretty clear. I mean, Hillary has said that she actually supports medical marijuana, that she also supports the rescheduling of marijuana. I believe that she would respect the votes of voters around the country who voted in favor of either medical marijuana and/or recreational marijuana. Donald Trump, on the other hand, would bring back the war on drugs. He says that the big—one of the big problems that we’re facing is drug smuggling by Mexican immigrants. His first supporter was Governor LePage of Maine, who has engaged in his own local drug war in Maine that he has associated with blacks and Latinos, who, he claims, come to his state, bringing drugs, impregnating their women and generating the opioid crisis in that state. So I think that if you think about what they have said, who the people are around them, the policies that they support, it’s fairly clear that Donald Trump would greatly amplify the drug war and roll back many of the reforms that we’ve made over the last 10, five years, whereas Hillary Clinton would support the efforts of Black Lives Matter and other grassroots groups to actually prioritize criminal justice reform and roll back the war on drugs and have us redirect our resourced away from locking up and criminalizing people, towards providing public health and treatment for those who want and need it.

AMY GOODMAN: The Atlantic writes, “Recreational marijuana users can now legally light up a joint in states representing about 5 percent of the U.S. population. By the time Americans wake up on November 9, that percentage could be swelling to more than one-quarter.” From 5 percent to a quarter. And so, what kind of pressure does that put then on the federal government?

DEBORAH SMALL: Well, I think it puts a lot of pressure on the federal government to both acknowledge and respect, you know, the voice of the people that’s been expressed through these various initiatives. And quite frankly, it also puts pressure on them to change their position on the global war on drugs, because this is not just a U.S. phenomenon. And I know that you’ve been reporting about what’s happening in the Philippines and the war on drugs there, where the president is actively engaged in a campaign of extrajudicial killing of people who are deemed to be drug users or drug dealers. And the U.S. is directly responsible for that, because we exported the drug war to Philippines and all these other countries around the world. In the last five or six years, we’ve seen a real upsurge and a cry, particularly for Latin America, for us to re-examine our drug policies. Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay, Chile have all called on the U.S. to move towards a more public health approach for drugs. This is what these initiatives are also about. And so, it’s time for the federal government to listen both to the people here and to the people abroad, who have collectively said that the war on drugs is a colossal failure and that we need to repeal it and move to an approach to drug control that respects human rights and also protects public safety.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the states Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada are with California in voting on legalizing the recreational use of marijuana, whether or not to, on Tuesday?

DEBORAH SMALL: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Florida, Arkansas, where do they fit in? North Dakota?

DEBORAH SMALL: Well, what we’re seeing in those states is, again, a movement towards liberalizing their laws to make medical marijuana more available to people. It’s pretty clear that within the next few years the vast majority of Americans are going to be living in states where they have a legal access to either medical and/or recreational marijuana, which is going to represent a major sea change in our approach to dealing with drugs in this country. It’s going to be really hard to maintain a level of criminalization and a focus on drug law enforcement when the majority of Americans believe that they have a legal right to this. And then, we then will confront the question of whether or not we’re going to continue to use these laws as a tool to target minorities and other vulnerable populations, because the truth is that for the majority of Americans with money and status and, quite frankly, who don’t look like me, marijuana has been legal for them all along. So this is really about having the laws comport and making sure that everybody in America has equal rights and everyone is treated equally under the law.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you very much, Deborah Small, for being with us, founder of Break the Chains: Communities of Color and the War on Drugs. We’ll link to your piece in The Root, “How We Can Reap Reparations from Marijuana Reform.” Longtime advocate for drug decriminalization and legalization.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, an astounding film called Rikers. Stay with us.

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