New York Governor Andrew Cuomo wants to change New York’s laws to decriminalize marijuana. New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly have rushed to agree. Cuomo’s proposed change is a repudiation of Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk program, which has arrested more than 400,000 people for marijuana crimes— more than were arrested by the three prior Mayors combined — while still not denting marijuana use or availability in New York. It seems that Bloomberg’s previous tactic was doing little besides creating unwilling clients for the prison-industrial complex.
Everyone who has been a teenager knows how prevalent marijuana is throughout America and how easy it is to acquire. If the police did stop-and-frisks of every white boy in almost any city or college, they would yield plenty of arrests for marijuana possession. But black men are targeted and stopped and frisked for the crime of being black in poor black neighborhoods, and those found with small bags of marijuana are sucked into the justice system and forever branded a criminal. This means they will struggle to find work, may not qualify for student-aid and likely stay in public housing. These men are virtually removed from society for a nonviolent offense that many Americans commit. They are failed by America.
Cuomo recognizes that arresting those caught with small amounts of marijuana is not pragmatic in terms of the time and energy of police, prosecutors and courts — in New York more people are arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana than any other crime. Cuomo also knows that it doesn’t make sense to ruin the job prospects of so many New Yorkers for this crime. Twelve states have already decriminalized marijuana, including California, but because of New York’s size and place in America, decriminalizing marijuana in the state represents a significant turning point.
Recognizing that, I called Ohio State University Associate Professor of Law Michelle Alexander, the author of the The New Jim Crow, a definitive study of the impact of the War on Drugs. Professor Alexander told me that the loss of human potential for possessing small amounts of marijuana is staggering. “If Barack Obama had been caught for making that mistake [smoking weed in high school], he would have been branded a criminal and the odds that he would’ve made it to college are slim,” Alexander said. “He might not even be eligible to vote.” Decriminalization is a positive step toward stopping the damage, Alexander said, but she also thinks we should do even more.
“I find it encouraging that Cuomo acknowledged the racial dimensions of these marijuana arrests and the lifelong consequences of acquiring a criminal record. Once you are branded a criminal, even for marijuana possession, that record follows you for life,” Alexander said. “It’s encouraging that Cuomo acknowledges how people of color have been subject to discriminatory enforcement, and a criminal record can relegate you to permanent second-class status. What I’d like to see is Cuomo go even further and call for the expungement of records for those who’ve been criminally charged with marijuana possession to ensure those who were ensnared before this likely policy change aren’t branded for life.”
But what do we say to those who think if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime? Or those who think it’s the perpetrators’ fault for having weed in their pockets and thus their problem? Alexander has an answer. “There are those who believe the government shouldn’t be in the business of locking people up and putting them in literal cages because they ingest marijuana. Drug consumption should be treated as a public health problem and not as a crime. I share that view,” she said. “Why criminalize marijuana at all? If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve gotta admit the harm associated with being branded a criminal for life is vastly more devastating to individuals and families than any potential harm associated with smoking marijuana. So if we’re gonna point fingers and say, ‘If you don’t wanna do the time, don’t do the crime,’ then we have to ask ourselves why is this conduct criminalized? Why is it treated as a crime rather than a public-health problem, and why are the odds of being punished so much greater if you’re a person of color than if you’re white? Why should young people in ghettoized communities pay for their mistakes for the rest of their lives, while middle-class white kids get to make those mistakes and then go off to college?”
The War on Drugs has a movement rising against it, a movement that’s toppled the Rockefeller drug laws and is now battling stop-and-frisk and the criminalization of small amounts of marijuana. When major politicians who have an eye on the White House, such as Cuomo, are willing to listen and make changes, signaling that they know legislation is not going to hurt them in a run for national office, then in terms of reforming the War on Drugs, it just could be early morning in America.