“There are more African-American men in prison, jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850,” said Diego Arene-Morley, President of Brown University Students for Sensible Drug Policy. “That’s a statistic that you don’t really ever forget.”
He added, “The federal prison population since 1980 has grown 721% thanks to Reagan’s vision for a war on drugs.”
Arene-Morley was acting as the emcee at a forum on Regulating Marijuana in Rhode Island. It featured two panels of experts and advocates addressing a crowd of over 120 people. With nearly two hours of experts discussing policy and outlining possible courses towards the regulation of sales of marijuana, it was a night jam packed with information.
Representative Scott Slater (D-Prov) spoke about his involvement in passing a law to regulate the recreational use of marijuana as a continuation of the work his father, former Representative Thomas Slater, who was instrumental in passing the laws that allowed for the medical use of marijuana in our state.
Dr. David C. Lewis, MD, founder of Brown University’s Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies, gave a short history of drug prohibition laws. He says such laws have always been racist in origin. That’s not to say that there are no dangers in using marijuana. Dr. Lewis maintains that we must balance an understanding of civil liberties with an understanding of the medical information.
Jim Vincent, president of NAACP Providence Branch pointed out that it’s not just communities of color, but all communities that are impacted by these drug laws. Money dedicated to the war on drugs is money not used in our schools or for other public goods. Vincent mentioned the book The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander (see the suggested reading list below) as being an excellent guide to the cost of such policies on our society.
Elizabeth A. Comery, JD, retired attorney, former Providence police officer and member of LEAP, (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition) recalled her days as a police officer in Providence. She joined the force in 1976, and said, “I went on because I really wanted to serve and protect. It may sound naive given what’s happening now but we have to get back to that.”
Comery knows police officers who are “consumed with guilt and regret” over their actions during the drug war. The police routinely targeted communities of color in their drug raids, and their war on drugs almost never penetrated into white or economically advantaged communities. Meanwhile, the clearance rates on homicides has plunged. In Providence, only 43% of homicides have been cleared since 2000.
Mason Tvert, Director of Communications at Marijuana Policy Project and co-director of the 2012 Amendment 64 campaign in Colorado, was asked about the approach most Rhode Island state legislators seem to be taking towards the issue, which is to “wait and see” what happens in Colorado in the wake of regulation there. Tvert compared those legislators to people who find out that they have cancer and wait to see how a friend’s treatment goes before deciding on a course of action for themselves. In adopting this attitude legislators are dodging the question and destroying lives.
Tvert also talked about the jobs marijuana regulation has brought to Colorado. In addition to 18,000 badged employees licensed by the state, there are uncounted thousands of spillover jobs in terms of construction and attendant industries. Tvert feels that responsible regulation that mandates living wages and health care for employees, among other benefits, could mitigate the effects of “Big Marijuana” in the event of nationwide regulation and federal acceptance.
Michelle McKenzie, MPH, public health researcher and advocate for people in recovery from substance dependence, who was part of the second panel, said, “Our society has tasked the criminal justice system with a task it just cannot do. We desperately need drug policy reform.”
Pat Oglesby, JD, MBA, former Chief Tax Counsel, US Senate Finance Committee would prefer that the regulation of marijuana be done under a state monopoly, but he was assured by Senator Josh Miller that such an idea is politically impossible at the Rhode Island State House. Oglesby thinks the taxation of marijuana should be on volume, not cost, as this reduces the chance of losing revenue as market competition drives down the price of marijuana in the future.
As to the possibility of passing marijuana regulation legislation in the near term, Senator Josh Miller is hopeful. Though by Senator Miller’s estimation the majority of State Senators privately believe that regulation is the best answer, most will not publicly endorse the idea for political reasons. Miller only got 13 Senators to publicly support the measure last year.
Miller isn’t all that interested in the financial implications in ending the war on marijuana. “There’s a culture of violence around drug use,” says Miller, “I’m interested in saving lives.” Regulation means that a person purchasing marijuana will be dealing with licensed businessmen, not criminals. Criminals bring access to weapons and harder drugs.
“The gateway,” says Miller, “is the drug dealer, not the drug.”
Dr. Lewis joked that this being Brown University, he couldn’t let the audience go without giving them a reading assignment. He recommended the following:
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
Why we need to end the War on Drugs a TED Talk by Ethan Nadelmann
Not to be outdone, Beth Comery added a bit of required reading as well: