Can Prop. 64 Address Racial Injustice in Drug Policy?

Prop 64 would OK possessing an ounce or less of pot for recreational use.

Prop 64 would OK possessing an ounce or less of pot for recreational use.

By Nadra Nittle for CALmatters

For rapper Jay Z, the war on drugs is personal: “Young men like me who hustle became the sole villain." That’s why the hip-hop mogul— who once dealt drugs in his New York public housing project and recently made a video denouncing current drug policy as an “epic fail”—is now endorsing a California ballot proposition to legalize recreational marijuana.

Jay Z endorses Prop 64 in a video seen here

Rapper Jay Z  endorses Prop 64 in a YouTube  video

It’s also personal to Alice Huffman, who has backed efforts to ease marijuana restrictions during her 16-year tenure as president of the California NAACP, once even incurring the wrath of black pastors demanding her resignation. She says she’s no stoner—“I’ve never even touched it”—but her concern about the inequities of the war on drugs led her to back marijuana legalization. “We know any time there are some things that are illegal,” she says, “we [African Americans] will be targeted more.”

Supporters of Proposition 64 have various motives. Some like getting high and would prefer not to have to break the law to do it. Some see it as a burgeoning industry and are eager to get in on the “Green Rush” to riches. But drafters also sought the support of civil rights groups. Today the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Drug Policy Alliance all tout Prop. 64 as a remedy for the mass incarceration of people of color for drug offenses.

Prop. 64, they say, would take unprecedented steps to address racial and economic injustices in drug policy.

Among its provisions: People currently incarcerated for many marijuana offenses could have their sentences reduced or overturned, and there would be thousands fewer arrests in the future. Juveniles would no longer be arrested for such crimes at all. Some $50 million a year in tax revenue from cannabis sales would be funneled back into inner cities most plagued by the drug war. And individuals with previous drug convictions would not necessarily be barred from acquiring licenses to sell marijuana.

Story continues below

It’s not total legalization: While Prop. 64 would OK possessing an ounce or less of pot, people could still be arrested for possessing more, or selling it without a license.

Critics contend it doesn’t go far enough to reduce racial disparities in arrests.

 “It’s a ruse to make a few people very wealthy,” said marijuana activist Dragonfly de la Luz of San Francisco, whose weed reviews appear in several marijuana publications. “This is a corporate cannabis coup to take over the industry.”

She opposes Prop. 64, accusing backers of “wildly misconstruing” its purported advantages for people of color: “Proposition 64 won’t legalize offenses that people in urban communities are arrested for like selling, transporting or possessing more than an ounce of marijuana.”

And the cost of licenses and fees to legally cultivate and sell marijuana could shut low-income people out of what is destined to become a corporate cannabis industry.

Whatever the merit of those concerns, “anybody who wants to vote against the marijuana law is nuts,” said criminal defense attorney Bruce Margolin, executive director of the pro-legalization National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “I’ve seen the suffering, the terrible discrepancies (in policing) used against people of color.”

In California, racial disparities in drug arrests have been glaring over the past decade, even though U.S. government statistics indicate that blacks and whites use and sell drugs at nearly the same rate.

The state authorized use of medical marijuana in 1996 and instituted lighter penalties for recreational use in 2011. But half a million Californians have been arrested for marijuana offenses over the past decade, according to an August analysis of California Department of Justice data by the Drug Policy Alliance, a national advocacy group urging greater drug decriminalization. Those arrests dropped dramatically, by 86 percent, after legislators lowered possession of an ounce or less to an infraction.

Yet the analysis found that in 2015, blacks were more than twice as likely as whites to be arrested for a marijuana misdemeanor, and nearly five times more likely to be arrested for a marijuana felony. Latinos are 35 percent more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana offenses.

And if voters approve Prop. 64? Adults with more than an ounce of marijuana (the equivalent of 40 joints) would still be charged with a misdemeanor, and face the same punishment as now—up to six months in jail, a $500 fine or both—and repeat offenders could face additional jail time. But the proposition would reduce penalties for selling, now a felony punishable by up to four years imprisonment. If recreational use is legalized, the charge may be reduced to a misdemeanor, with repeat offenders facing up to four years behind bars.

“The war on drugs, to me, is a war on poverty,” said retired Torrance police officer Kyle Kazan, who represents Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. “The whole drug war itself has just ravaged the relationship between law enforcement and the people they happen to serve.”

Supporters of Prop 64 say it would address racial disparities in pot arrests

Supporters of Prop 64 say it would address racial disparities in pot arrests

Even so, racial disparities in pot arrests may not vanish if the initiative passes.

Consider Colorado, where voters mostly legalized recreational marijuana, but still outlawed juvenile use, required a license to sell, and restricted where it could be consumed. The results, according to a state assessment:  Blacks remain three times more likely than whites to be arrested on a marijuana charge.

Perhaps the most persuasive case to be made for the “social justice” potential of Prop. 64: the revolutionary effect it would have on juvenile drug offenders. Drug crimes are one of the most common reasons juveniles, and particularly juveniles of color, enter the criminal justice system. But under Prop. 64, minors—whether they use, sell or grow marijuana— won’t face jail time.

In addition, the initiative would create a community reinvestment fund routing tens of millions of dollars from tax revenues back into neighborhoods ravaged by the war on drugs.

But in such communities, concerns remain about he business side of pot legalization—what happens when illicit street dealing goes legit and even high tech and corporate. Under Prop 64, sellers would need to pay fees for licenses to sell marijuana in California. The prices have yet to be determined, but critics predict the costs will be a barrier to entry for the working class.

“Certain people will have licenses to sell it, which makes the rich get richer while the urban and poor people have their lives destroyed for doing the same thing,” de la Luz said.


Nadra Nittle is a freelance journalist based in Southern California and a contributor to CALmatters.org, a nonprofit news venture dedicated to covering state policy and politics. Click here for a longer version of this article that originally appeared on CALmatters.


We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading