Members of the House Judiciary Committee marked up the Justice in Policing Act, which seeks to amend federal guidance over certain law enforcement activities.
Many of the bill’s components are steps in a positive direction, such as banning “No-Knock” drug raids by law enforcement. This is a recommendation that many on NORML’s Legal Committee have long advocated for, as the proliferation of these raids have often led to tragic results.
But while lawmakers focus largely on police behaviors, we at NORML also wish to raise questions about police powers. Over the years, law enforcement in this country have been granted extraordinary powers — powers that often provide them with the ability to interact with citizens whenever and wherever they please. In many cases, the rationale for these ever expanding police powers has been to enforce the so-called war on drugs.
In fact, one of the most common pretexts provided by police for interacting with citizens is that they suspect that someone has either used or is in possession of marijuana. That is why, during these hearings, Rep. Lou Correa has wisely suggested the need to amend federal anti-marijuana laws should go hand-in-hand with reforming policing.
Speaking recently with Georgetown Law Professor Paul Butler, Rep. Correa recently asked, “How do you think that the legalization of cannabis would help for social justice in this nation?”
Professor Butler’s answer was instructive. “We think it would help create equal justice under the law.”
One must only revisit the origins of marijuana prohibition in America to understand how ending its criminalization will address issues surrounding racially-based policing. Look no further than the sentiments of its architect, Harry Anslinger, the founding Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who declared: “[M]ost [marijuana consumers in the US] are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. … [M]arijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes. … Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”
It is clear that marijuana prohibition was largely born out of prejudice and racial animus and its enforcement continues to disproportionately impact people of color.
That is why NORML is demanding that federal lawmakers end marijuana criminalization, by way of either including language in the police reform bill to deschedule cannabis, or having House lawmakers pass the MORE Act, which cleared the Judiciary Committee last November.
In the days, weeks, and months ahead, I have no doubt that public and political debates over racially motivated policing and systemic racism will persist in living rooms, city council chambers, and within the halls of Congress. And while marijuana policy reform alone will not undo all of the most egregious practices that have led to the recent public outcry of Black Lives Matter and others, ending cannabis prohibition will help to improve the situation by limiting law enforcement’s power to stop and arrest over half a million citizens annually for possessing a substance that never should have been made illegal in the first place.