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Wednesday, April 7, 2010 as of 11:14 AM ET

Legalized Marijuana

Claudia Cowan

San Francisco, CA

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Legalizing Marijuana: A Civil Right?

September 16, 2010 - 12:54 PM | by: Claudia Cowan

The march for equal rights often leads to the voting booth. But in California, the black community is divided over a ballot measure to legalize marijuana for adults.

The state NAACP argues allowing counties to tax and regulate cannabis will reduce arrests among minority youth, and advance civil rights. “If you look at the disproportionate number of arrests that happen in our community, the law is not being applied equitably across the board,” says California NAACP President Alice Huffman. “We’re targeted, which makes this a civil rights issue.”

Many in the black community strongly disagree, and no one is more outraged than Sacramento Bishop Ron Allen, the leading critic of Prop. 19 among African-Americans. “If Martin Luther King, Jr., could know that our oldest civil rights organization is calling legalizing a drug ‘a civil right,’ he’d be turning over in his grave.” Allen says legalizing pot for adult recreational use would devastate black and Latino neighborhoods. He argues the costs would be so high, it would wipe out any financial gains that supporters claim will come from regulating California’s number one cash crop. “Do you truly think,” Allen says, “that any money that comes into the community would not be exceeded through health care, public costs, drugged driving? We’re gonna have such mayhem, that the little money that comes into the community will disappear.”

But the NAACP points to a recent study showing African-Americans in the state are two to three times as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana offenses. “Anytime government intervenes, and treats one group worse than it treats the other group, it’s a civil rights issue,” says Huffman.

Current police chiefs we called for reaction either oppose Prop. 19, or refuse to take a stand. However, some former cops, as well as the National Black Police Officers Association, argue legalizing pot will allow officers to focus on more serious crimes and offenders. “Our marijuana laws are much worse than ineffective: they waste valuable police resources and also create a lucrative black market that funds cartels and criminal gangs with billions of tax-free dollars,” says Joseph McNamara, former police chief in San Jose and Kansas City, and now a speaker for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

But according to veteran pollster Mark DiCamillo, these message are not resonating among ethnic groups. “African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians are all on the ‘no’ side by significant margins,” he says. Older voters, in particular, don’t like the idea of legalizing pot, and in off-year elections, they tend to have a higher turnout than younger voters.

The latest polling on Prop. 19 has the measure too close to call, which is generally not a good sign for passage this close to the election. While things can change in the final weeks, political experts say when an issue is as controversial – and clear cut – as this one is, voters tend to vote ‘no’ and preserve the status quo– regardless of the color of their skin.

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