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More Black Leaders Are Shifting Their Views On Marijuana

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Inside the law offices of Cannabis Counsel in Detroit, where two lawyers work full-time for clients fighting marijuana charges, 40 political activists gathered recently to cheer a candidate for U.S. Congress.


They were eager to hear from state Sen. Vincent Gregory, and not just because he supports their chief goal — to ease laws against marijuana. Gregory, a Democrat from Southfield, represents a population the pro-marijuana crowd wants desperately to win over: African-American leaders and policy makers.


“If we legalize this and tax it, it’s a benefit to all,” Gregory, a retired Wayne County sheriff’s detective, told the crowd, to cheers and applause.


Pro-marijuana activists say they’ve long been frustrated that few black leaders have publicly joined them in their efforts. But with a majority of Americans in favor of more lenient laws for cannabis, black leaders — including President Barack Obama — are relaxing their stance against marijuana, breaking with their long tradition of supporting the nation’s 42-year-old war on drugs.


That sentiment is reflected in a resurging popularity of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” Published in 2010, author Michelle Alexander explores the issue of race in America’s criminal justice system.


In addition, a nationwide study released last year by the American Civil Liberties Union shows how laws against marijuana have had a disproportionate effect on African Americans, putting far more of them behind bars than their marijuana usage rates would predict. That knowledge has suddenly made marijuana, for many black leaders, a civil rights issue.


By the numbers

Last fall, with no fanfare and little notice, the NAACP’s national board endorsed a pro-marijuana bill in Congress. The issue is still a hot button with numerous religious leaders. Detroit’s NAACP leaders, led by the Rev. Wendell Anthony, did not respond to several inquiries by the Free Press on the issue.


And many African-American leaders, especially religious ones, continue to voice opposition to marijuana. But more of them are acknowledging a major civil rights concern in the way drug laws are enforced.


The Rev. Charles Christian Adams, presiding pastor at Hartford Memorial Baptist Church, a Progressive Baptist church of 7,000 members on Detroit’s west side headed by his father, says he opposes legalization “especially in the city of Detroit, where there is such a crime problem.”


Adams, 47, said he overcame serious drug and alcohol problems two decades ago, and he now serves on several boards of drug-abuse programs.


“Those of us in the treatment and prevention community feel marijuana is a gateway drug (that) often leads people to use other illicit drugs — heroin, crack, alcohol,” said Adams.


The Rev. Michael Owens, immediate past president of the Council of Baptist Pastors of Detroit and Vicinity, representing nearly 100 churches in metro Detroit, sounded similar themes, concluding: “I think the sentiment among many of the (black) clergy is that we would not favor legalized marijuana.”


Yet, both Adams and Owens said they felt African Americans have been unfairly targeted for arrest. For that reason, both said they favored dramatically reduced penalties for minor marijuana offenses — a dramatic departure from the war on drugs.

Their changing attitudes spring from data showing that blacks are far more likely than whites to be arrested, jailed and sent to prison for even simple possession of marijuana.


In the nationwide study commissioned by the ACLU and released last year, blacks in Michigan were found to be 3.3 times more likely to be arrested for possession than whites, despite equal usage rates. Similar racial disparities were charted across the country, as high as 8.3 times in Iowa, according to 2010 FBI statistics compiled by the ACLU.


Life-changing charges

Leonia Lloyd has been a drug court judge at Detroit’s 36th District Court since 2002, sentencing a stream of low-level marijuana defendants to her diversion program instead of jail.


In drug court, a defendant is typically given a sentence of probation and required to meet regularly with a probation officer, perform community service and undergo months of frequent drug testing.


“At least 30% of the people I get are strictly (charged with) marijuana,” said Lloyd, a board member of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. She said drug courts leave defendants poised to succeed, and not branded with a label, because “here, everything is expunged from your record.”


And yet, just a single arrest for marijuana can start a trail of Internet data that’s readily available to employers, as well as to college admissions officers and the military, said Zeke Edwards, lead author of the 185-page, 50-state study by the ACLU called “The War on Marijuana in Black and White.”


Once anyone — regardless of ethnicity — is arrested even once for possessing cannabis, “they’ve started a process that’s going to affect their job, their schooling, their career — people get fired, get kicked out of public housing or lose a scholarship,” as documented in the study, Edwards said.


In 2012, Detroiters voted with a 65% approval rate to allow possession of up to an ounce of the drug by anyone older than 21 and on private property. That proposal had city lawyers under former Mayor Dave Bing and former City Council President Charles Pugh sparring with activists for two years, trying to keep it off the ballot, before losing in the Michigan Supreme Court.


But Detroit Police Chief James Craig said recently that his officers won’t honor the local ordinance.


“Federal law supersedes the local law,” Craig said. Marijuana “is still against the law in Detroit,” he said.

That unyielding stance worries one Detroiter who is a state-approved medical-marijuana provider and caregiver.


“It’s been illegal for so long — even people like myself who have the legal license (for medical marijuana) in my pocket, you’re still worried, ‘Oh my gosh, I wonder if the police are going to come in here,’ ” said Joe White, 61, a retired physical education teacher for Detroit Public Schools. White is a state-approved provider of medical marijuana for his wife, Brenda White, whose pain and muscle spasms went unrelieved by prescription drugs but are eased by medical pot, he said.


As the lone African American on the board of Michigan NORML, the state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, White created a presentation he calls “The School to Prison Pipeline,” dramatizing how marijuana arrests shunt young black Detroiters into lives of alternating incarceration and unemployment.


Jail instead of college

Nationally, momentum is growing rapidly among African-American leaders for ending, if not the entire war on drugs, at least the one against marijuana, said Neill Franklin, a retired major with the Maryland State Police. Franklin is executive director of LEAP, or Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a Washington, D.C., organization of former and current police officers “who support drug regulation rather then prohibition,” according to the group’s website.


And in two recent interviews, including one with CNN that aired Friday, President Barack Obama acknowledged that he smoked marijuana in his youth. Obama told CNN that he objected to “the very heavy criminal penalties for individual users that have been applied unevenly, and in some cases, with a racial disparity.”


Franklin travels the country representing LEAP.

“When I started speaking for LEAP in 2008, I saw very, very few black folks in the audiences, and most of those were young people,” said Franklin, who is black.


“I also saw very few black leaders taking a similar position as me. White leadership has really been running the show on drug policy reform for a long time. So I recognized a void of black leadership speaking out on an issue that so seriously affects the black community,” he said.


Franklin credits Alexander and her book “The New Jim Crow” for shaking up the black establishment. And Alexander said she, too, has seen attitudes shift.


“Middle-class white kids have been using and selling marijuana for years and years, and people laughed about it,” said Alexander, an Ohio State University law professor. “It’s dismissed as just their youthful mistakes, as many of them go off to college and then well-paying jobs. But the young black kids go off to jail. They’re branded second-class citizens for life.”


Embracing change

Alice Huffman, president of the California State Conference of the NAACP, endorsed legalization of marijuana in 2010, even as faith-based NAACP leaders in her state called for her resignation. Since then, Huffman said, she has seen attitudes among NAACP leaders shift.


“For decades, we were oblivious to the destruction that the war on drugs has been bringing to black communities,” said Huffman. Black leaders were blind to the fact that police “were targeting black and brown people” when enforcing marijuana laws, said Huffman, who sits on the national NAACP board and is the national group’s criminal justice chair.


Detroit school board President LaMar Lemmons, a longtime advocate of decriminalizing marijuana, said that after failing for years, he’s finally starting to recruit allies among other black leaders.


“In our community, the war on marijuana has always been driven by the church — even if a family doesn’t go to church, the preachers set the tone for everybody,” Lemmons said. Now, with change in the air, Lemmons said he plans to oversee a conference of leaders in late February at the Detroit Public Library to “set the black agenda for our region.” A major topic? Marijuana laws.


State Sen. Coleman Young II, D-Detroit, whose namesake father tried to ease Michigan’s marijuana laws as a state legislator 40 years ago, is pushing a bill in Lansing to decriminalize possession of cannabis. With marijuana views mellowing on both sides of the political aisle in Lansing, Young’s bill could pass later this year, turning possession of the drug in Michigan into nothing more serious than a traffic ticket.


Over wine and cheese at the home-like offices of Cannabis Counsel, attorney Matt Abel said he was buoyed by the growing tide of black leaders embracing the change.


“For a long time, the black community didn’t get it — I see that changing,” said Abel, a white Detroiter who runs the statewide effort to legalize marijuana. He added:


“To get this done, we are going to need the political support of a lot of African Americans.”



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