Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
James Forman Jr.’s book Locking Up Our Own, which won a Pulitzer prize this week, shows how plans to decriminalize cannabis to help black people were derailed in Washington, D.C. in 1975, by black people.
On April 7, Maryland’s legislature finally agreed, after months of haggling, on a cannabis bill that is designed to increase the diversity of companies licensed to grow, process, and sell medical cannabis. The state’s first round of cannabis licenses included not one African-American company, which caused Maryland’s Legislative Black Caucus to protest. The African-American state legislators forced Gov. Larry Hogan to at least study racial disparities in the emerging cannabis market, to keep hope alive for a new bill that would help cannabis entrepreneurs of color into the pool of licensees. Ensuring minority ownership in the state’s medical cannabis market is one of the Black Caucus’s priority agendas this year.
“It’s a billion-dollar industry and we’re not going to allow that to start up and flourish in Maryland with no African-American participation,” said Black Caucus chair Del. Cheryl Glenn in The Washington Post. “Especially given the history of the incarceration of African Americans over the years because of marijuana. ... That’s ludicrous, and it’s unacceptable.”
Washington, D.C.’s leaders, Mayor Muriel Bowser and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, both black women, have fought off Congress to secure the decriminalization of cannabis that residents voted into law in 2014. Holmes has said that a “vital reason” why this is a civil rights issue is that 91 percent of D.C.’s weed arrests are of African Americans. Sen. Cory Booker, an African American, currently has a bill pending that would officially lift federal cannabis prohibition laws.
This is all a far cry from how black lawmakers in and around D.C. responded in the mid-1970s, when cannabis decriminalization was also up for debate. The War on Drugs was waged by powerful white conservatives from the White House down, but African Americans in D.C. did plenty to help roll that war out, as James Forman Jr. reports in great detail in his book Locking Up Our Own, which won a Pulitzer prize for general nonfiction this week. It recounts the role of black politicians, civic leaders, judges, and lawyers in helping usher in the mass incarceration crisis among African Americans.
The first chapter relates the 1975 cannabis decriminalization attempts of David Clarke, a white D.C. city councilor who had worked for Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and graduated from Howard Law. Clarke was worried about the escalating arrests of black D.C. residents—334 in 1968 to 3,002 in 1975—and so he introduced a bill that would give fines instead of prison time for possession of less than two ounces of weed, and would have police issue citations instead of arrests for anything smaller.
Clarke, who is now deceased, had plenty of support from the medical community, some legal authorities, including judges, and the head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. He did not, however, have the support of D.C.’s black leaders—at that time D.C. had a black mayor and a majority black city council. There was a huge inner-city heroin problem at the time, largely affecting African Americans—especially Vietnam War vets—and there wasn’t widespread public knowledge yet of the science that says cannabis is not a gateway to harder drugs. Civil rights leaders and black nationalists did not agree on much in 1975, but they seemed in harmony about getting rid of weed dealers by any means necessary (or, as D.C. would later learn, unnecessary).
Clarke’s fellow city councilman Douglas Moore, an African American, led a crusade against cannabis decriminalization. He believed that making weed readily available would only make people who were already disadvantaged and oppressed more vulnerable.
“It would seem to me to be a social crime to de-penalize marijuana so as to make it possible for more black children who cannot think already to keep them from thinking,” testified Moore at a hearing on the bill. The ordinance was also opposed by Marion Barry, the then-city councilor who would later become D.C.’s mayor. Black mayors in Detroit and Atlanta resisted cannabis decriminalization efforts as well.
Clarke’s bill in D.C. failed after African-American church leaders came out in full strength to flex on city council members, and it’s not clear it would have survived had it passed. Both Walter Washington, D.C.’s first black mayor, and Charles Diggs, founder of the Congressional Black Caucus and chair of the committee that had to approve all D.C. decisions, hinted they would veto the bill.
We must start with the fact that decriminalization’s leading opponents—people like Judge Fauntleroy and Doug Moore—were among the black community’s most dogged defenders. They were committed race men, not Uncle Toms. During the formal political debates, and in their public lives more generally, these leaders regarded themselves as the guardians of the black community, and especially of its young people, whom they were determined to protect from the dangers of drug use.
The defeat of D.C.’s weed decriminalization bill helped set the tone for how drug penalization would operate in other cities over the next few decades, when the U.S.A. became by far the chief incarceration officer of the planet, locking up millions of African Americans and devastating millions of black families and communities in the process. A large chunk of that incarceration comes courtesy of weed-related arrests, even for non-violent offenders. These have helped fill local jails, state prisons, and federal penitentiaries alike.
The effects of this kind of over-criminalization of African Americans for a relatively benign substance is multiplied by the millions of African Americans who upon release become disenfranchised from: voting; getting many jobs; accessing public housing, college aid, and financial assistance. They are effectively disappeared from society.
It should be noted that Forman’s book doesn’t pin the entire mass incarceration and drug prohibition issue on African-American lawmakers. His account is a nuanced examination of the tough decisions that black politicians had to make to address the crime plaguing their streets. Many of these black leaders in the 70s also pushed for solutions to the root causes leading to drug abuse—lack of jobs, police brutality, poverty, the stress of racism—but, white lawmakers were most receptive to the incarceration proposals.
“In short, because D.C.’s debate over marijuana decriminalization took place before the full-scale drug war was launched, decriminalization opponents could not foresee the eventual impact of their victory on the young blacks they were trying to save,” writes Forman.
It’s perhaps for these reasons that black D.C. leaders today are trying to undo some of that damage, by pushing for policies that will stop sending young black people to jail for petty weed offenses. The ballot referendum that decriminalized cannabis in 2014 allows people to grow and possess up to two ounces of weed in their private homes, but it stops short of allowing for the sale of cannabis except for medical purposes.
A congressional bill forbids D.C. from taking the next step to full legalization and regulation of cannabis for leisurely purposes. Yet Denver, Seattle, Portland, a bunch of cities in California, and all of Vermont, have voted to legalize recreational use of cannabis, some even on the grounds of correcting racial wrongs of the drug war. Many in D.C. would like to do the same, and see it as a civil rights issue for African Americans— an association black leaders would have thought you were high for making back in the 1970s.
However, today former NAACP CEO Ben Jealous is the keynote speaker at the National Cannabis Policy Summit in D.C. where he’ll be talking about why legalizing weed is a racial equity necessity. Jealous is also running for governor of Maryland and has made legalizing cannabis a cornerstone of his criminal justice platform. He began working on criminal justice reform when he was 18 years old and working at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., opening mail sent from inmates.
“Around that time, it began to become very clear to civil rights activists that there was a high price for the war on drugs, primarily on our communities—something wasn’t working,” said Jealous. “As leaders in our community began looking into what’s actually working and not working, folks had to confront the facts. The violence [in the illegal drug trade] was too high, the racial justice was too high, and the results were too low.”
As a candidate for governor, Jealous is also campaigning on strengthening diversity requirements for licenses in the marijuana industry. The fact that until now there have been no licenses awarded to minority-owned companies, he said, “looks intentional” given Maryland’s demographics.
“They pretended they could not find a company that was owned by a woman or person of color that was qualified, and that was simply a lie,” said Jealous. “It appears that they got the result that they wanted. I don’t know how in a state that is half-women and half-people of color you exclude every woman and person of color as a potential licensee but somehow they did it.”
And this time around, even black church leaders in the Washington, D.C. area are on board with cannabis legalization, in defiance of their predecessors who helped kill a decriminalization bill in D.C. in the 1970s.
“Why don’t we take a portion of all the drug money confiscated in the community and put it in a fund. This way, African Americans who do not have access to capital can go and get the help that they need,” said Bruce Branch, of Maryland’s Business Clergy and Partnership in The Afro newspaper.
If only that wisdom had been more prevalent 43 years ago.