As Richard Nixon’s aide John Ehrlichman admitted, the war on drugs was originally launched to target anti-war leftists and black communities. The disproportionate enforcement of drug laws against poor communities of color continues today. Plenty of my constituents are held back by a minor marijuana offense on their record. And the data backs this up. The ACLU reports that people of color in Rhode Island are almost three times more likely to be arrested for drugs.
With the opportunity to legalize marijuana this year, Rhode Island stands on the verge of knocking down one of the central pillars of the war on drugs in our state. But we’ll need progressives to fight for it in order to win. Some assume that marijuana will legalize itself, because “it’s inevitable.” I’m here to tell you, it’s not inevitable. Just like every other important political issue, we have to fight for it.
We need progressives in the trenches this year not only to ensure the legislation is passed, but also to make sure it’s done the right way. Marijuana in the underground market is a vital source of income for some people, mostly people who are young and poor with few other economic opportunities. It’s up to progressives to ensure that we end the war on marijuana in a way that doesn’t leave those vulnerable communities behind.
Fortunately, the primary sponsors of the legislation seem to understand this. Although there are some ways to strengthen the legislation in its current form, the bill proposed by Rep. Slater and Sen. Miller contains provisions that seek to promote diversity and inclusion of people of color within the legal marijuana economy.
But when the bill moves forward, there will be an amendment process. This will present an opportunity to propose even more progressive provisions, but it is also a chance for opponents to eliminate the good ones already there. Progressives need to get behind the bill to ensure the final product is just and fair. If we sit on the sidelines, either the bill will not pass and the war on marijuana will continue or the bill may pass in a way that prevents people of color from participating in the newly formed marijuana economy.
Legalizing marijuana is clearly a winning issue for progressives. What is “risky” is allowing low-hanging fruit to go unpicked. It’s very clear that in this moment of resistance our constituents want their elected leaders to stand up and fight for issues they care about. Failing to support an issue that is so commonsense and so popular will only reinforce the idea that Democrats are weak and spineless.
So this is a call to my fellow Democrats and progressives: join me and fight to end the war on marijuana in Rhode Island this year. Help me ensure that we undo a major piece of the war on drugs, and help me do it in a way that does not reproduce racial discrimination in the legal marijuana market. Be part of the process to ensure that justice is achieved. We can do this together.