Attorney General Jeff Sessions January 4th memo regarding marijuana enforcement is historic... and it should promptly be consigned to the dustbin of history. Mr. Session’s very name is a history lesson. Like his father and grandfather, he was named after Jefferson Davis, the first and only president of the Confederacy and P.G.T. Beauregard, the first prominent general of the Confederate Army. These were the men who lead the people of Alabama in their desire and purpose to join the “slave-holding states” to secede from the U.S. and form a government where “in no case shall citizenship extend to any person who is not a free white person.” See Alabama Ordinance of Secession. Mr. Sessions memo overturning Obama era guidelines for federal marijuana prosecutions is entirely consistent his historic roots. Here’s why.
When the South failed in its quest to preserve the “peculiar institution” of slavery, Jim Crow and segregation followed. “Separate but equal” became the rallying cry to keep whiteness supreme. With Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, this became impossible. American society convulsed. In 1968, Richard Nixon took the White House by appealing to the “silent (white) majority” and exploiting Southern fears of the recently empowered African-Americans. The South has been Republican ever since. Here’s how Nixon did it.
He declared a War on Drugs. John Ehrlichman a Nixon staffer revealed the real roots of the criminal prohibition of marijuana and other substances: “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
By 1980 with the ascension of Ronald Reagan (and Nancy Reagan’s vacuous “Just Say No”), the drug war was hitting its stride. George H.W. Bush amended the Posse Comitatus Act to allow the military to be used as a domestic police force in the drug war, effectively para-militarizing police forces across the nation. In 1994, Bill Clinton passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. In the 22 years since the bill was passed, the federal prison population more than doubled. War is a bi-partisan vice, and scare-mongering reliably delivers votes. It is to this era that Mr. Sessions seeks to return us with his memo. That is because the war on drugs has been extraordinarily successful in its primary purpose: to vilify Blacks and the Anti-war left, arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and put them in jail.
By 2000, incarceration numbers began to become available in parts of the South demonstrating that the drug war increasingly was a war on African Americans, particularly Black males of prime breeding age. One in three black men in the United States between the ages of 20 and 29 years old was under correctional supervision or control. Among the nearly 1.9 million offenders incarcerated on June 30, 1999, more than 560,000 were black males between the ages of 20 and 39. At those levels of incarceration, newborn Black males in this country had a greater than 1 in 4 chance of going to prison during their lifetimes, while Latin-American males have a 1 in 6 chance, and white males have a 1 in 23 chance of serving time. The United States was incarcerating African-American men at a rate that was approximately four times the rate of incarceration of Black men in South Africa. The rate of imprisonment for black women was more than eight times the rate of imprisonment of white women; the rate of imprisonment of Hispanic women was nearly four times the rate of imprisonment of white women.
We can trace those disparities directly to discriminatory and selective enforcement of the drug laws. Most illicit drug users were white. There were an estimated 9.9 million whites (72 percent of all users), 2.0 million blacks (15 percent), and 1.4 million Hispanics (10 percent) who were illicit drug users. Yet, blacks constituted 36.8% of those arrested for drug violations, over 42% of those in federal prisons for drug violations and almost 60% of those in state prisons for drug felonies; Hispanics accounted for 22.5%. Drug laws had become the new Jim Crow.
Texas was particularly bad. By 2000, there were more Texans under criminal justice control, 706,600 -- than the entire populations of Vermont, Wyoming or Alaska. Texas’s incarceration rate of 1,035 per 100,000 population tops every state but Louisiana. If Texas were a separate nation, it would have the world’s highest incarceration rate, well above the United States at 682 per 100,000 or Russia's 685. The state's prison population had tripled since 1990, rising more than 60 percent in the past five years -- from 92,669 to 149,684. Black Texans were incarcerated at a rate seven times that of whites -- and at a rate 63 percent higher than the national rate for blacks. Blacks supplied 44 percent of the inmates in Texas although they constituted only 12 percent of the state's population. More than half of all Blacks were in jail in Texas for nonviolent offenses. They ended up picking cotton, herding cattle or, contracted out as labor to assemble computers.
Then came 9/11. Criminal justice reform took a backseat to terror wars until those wars too lost all legitimacy. It was not until the election of Barack Obama and the appointment of Eric Holder that the real roots of this massive, fraudulent, unjust war on drugs began to be addressed. Over the course of that presidency, states were allowed to advance their experiments with medicinal and later adult use marijuana. Civil asset forfeiture at the federal level was reigned in and the use of private, for-profit prisons was curtailed. A key part of this reform was a statement of guiding principles for federal prosecutors regarding marijuana. These guidelines allowed states to proceed with some predictability in their local marijuana programs. Mr. Sessions has undone all of this. Why is this important?
Because the numbers have only grown worse. An African-American in Michigan is three times more likely to be arrested for violating marijuana laws compared to a white person, although surveys and research indicate little difference between usage rates between the two groups. In all, African-Americans comprise about 14 percent of Michigan's population, but 35 percent of marijuana arrests. Overall, African-Americans in Michigan are incarcerated at roughly five times the rate of whites.
The numbers in the white flight counties of the Eastern District of Michigan are even more unconscionable. In St. Clair County, African-Americans make up 2.5% of the total population yet account for 43% of arrests for drug law violations. In Oakland County, African-Americans make up 14.4% of the population yet account for 48% of arrests for drug law violations. In Lapeer County African-Americans make up 1.2% of the population yet account for 10.4% of arrests for drug law violations. In Genesee County African-Americans make up 20% of the population yet account for 76% of drug arrests. This according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Medical marijuana patients and programs are squarely in the cross-fire of a war with deeply racial roots. We say that the only citizen more vulnerable to police misconduct than a young black male in Texas is a medical marijuana patient in Michigan. Mr. Sessions knows all of this. It is in his blood. In his name. This is not accidental. Mr. Sessions and his ilk want to return us to an age when names like Jefferson Davis and P.G.T. Beauregard are names to be proud of and ditzy slogans like “just say no” and “good people don’t smoke marijuana” substitute for real science. Mr. Sessions war is arbitrary, capricious, and racist. His dismissive memo merely enshrines the worst of policies and promotes selective and discriminatory enforcement of the law.
Can a community that has been abused for years by a corrupt, federal, militarized police force that is selectively enforcing the law on the basis of race organize to end its oppression?
Yes. See e.g. the American Revolution. In 1776, the British Redcoats had become a federal military police force with wide ranging powers to enforce the contraband laws Then, as now, most contraband consisted of drugs, primarily tea and tobacco. Then, as now, the police were allowed to issue “writs of assistance” (roving search warrants devoid of probable cause) allowing them to seize and keep the property of those persons believed to be illicitly trafficking. Then, as now, such power and temptation corrupted the police authorities, resulted in selective enforcement of the law and produced wide scale violations of God-granted liberties. Then, the community organized to resist. The Boston Tea Party, the American Revolution and the Bill of Rights ensued. Among the rights enshrined is the right to organize and to oppose abuses by a federal, corrupt, militarized police force. 2nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“I thought those guys (the KKK) were alright until I learned they smoke pot.” -- Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III