My Turn: Why cannabis legalization advances racial justice

For the Monitor
Published: 2/18/2019 12:10:32 AM

As the New Hampshire Legislature debates whether to legalize cannabis, we urge them to consider the dire cost that prohibition has imposed on vulnerable communities, including communities of color.

The American Civil Liberties Union has long opposed cannabis prohibition laws, recognizing their role in the failed War on Drugs and contribution to our broken criminal justice system. Vulnerable communities, including communities of color, have for decades been and continue to be disproportionately harmed by the failed war on cannabis. This is why the ACLU considers cannabis legalization to be such an important civil rights priority and a key component of comprehensive criminal justice reform.

The War on Drugs, of which cannabis prohibition laws are a part, has been an abject failure. But worse than that, it has served as a tool for perpetuating and entrenching racial injustice and mass incarceration.

The racial disparities in national incarceration rates have been driven largely by the racial targeting and enforcement of drug laws. Politicians have consistently defended harsh drug laws as the pursuit of morality and public safety, but have time and again turned a blind eye to the racial injustice they create. As a state, New Hampshire follows the heartbreaking legacy of harm and inequality left in the wake of the War on Drugs.

The Granite State is not immune to the racial disparities seen throughout the national criminal justice system.

One example of these facts are New Hampshire’s incarceration rates: according to the Sentencing Project, in 2014, one in 41 black men in the state were in prison. In 2016, data from the N.H. Department of Corrections revealed the incarceration rate of adults who are black was more than five times higher than the incarceration rate of adults who are white. This means that although black people accounted for only 1.2 percent of the state’s population in 2016, they constituted 6.5 percent of the prison population.

A more poignant example of the racial disparities in New Hampshire is that in 2010, before the enactment of decriminalization, the arrest rate for cannabis possession was 2.2 percent higher for black adults. We believe these disparities are indicative of inequalities in the broader criminal justice system in New Hampshire and have no reason to believe the enforcement of cannabis laws post-decriminalization is any different. This is in spite of repeated research demonstrating no disparity in the actual usage of cannabis between black and white populations.

Decriminalizing cannabis was a move in the right direction. Thanks to it, the number of people being prosecuted, sent to jail and shackled with criminal records because of cannabis has gone down. In 2017, the New Hampshire public defenders handled 234 cases for possession of cannabis. In 2018, that number dropped to 37, with 22 of those cases reduced to a violation at the time of plea.

However, this story is not over. Decriminalization did not legalize small amounts of cannabis – it instead reduced it to a fine, meaning people are still being penalized and experiencing hardship because of cannabis laws. Currently, people face a fine of $124 for a first or second offense related to cannabis possession, or a fine of up to $300 for any subsequent offense within any 3-year period.

To put this into context, the use of a car in a dangerous situation – road racing, driving on a public sidewalk or failure to yield to an emergency – gets you only a $62 fine. This is puzzling. Are we to believe that someone using cannabis in their private home is more of a public concern and more worthy of law enforcement resources than road racing?

Decriminalization was not a cure-all for the harms caused by cannabis prohibition. According to the N.H. Judicial Branch, thousands of charges were brought last year based specifically on cannabis or hash. The fines that accompany civil violations can place a substantial burden on individuals and families, particularly in vulnerable communities.

In sum, cannabis prohibition has come at an immense cost, and that cost has been disproportionately paid by communities of color and low-income individuals.

House Bill 481, which would provide for the legalization, regulation and taxation of cannabis, presents a chance for our state to acknowledge the racial injustice caused by cannabis prohibition and begin to right this wrong. It also honors our state’s “Live free or die” mentality and continues our state’s bipartisan commitment to economic justice and criminal justice reform.

(Jeanne Hruska is the political director at the ACLU of New Hampshire.)

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