Righting the Wrongs of the War on Drugs

GUEST  COMMENTARY-I am, and will remain, concerned that legalizing the sale of marijuana could be detrimental to the health and safety of vulnerable neighborhoods, leading to unintended consequences that cannot be offset by overblown estimates of the profit that commercialization might bring. Still, I recognize that Prop. 64 offers an opportunity to address at least some of the profound injustices perpetrated by the War on Drugs, especially against people of color. 

Even though marijuana use is fairly consistent across race, blacks have been four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession. And their punishment persisted long past the time they spent behind bars, because having a conviction on one’s record made it difficult, if not impossible, to find a job, obtain housing, secure student loans, earn a professional license, etc.

All of those missed opportunities had lasting repercussions, sometimes felt across generations. It also further widened the racial divide, socially and economically. 

Prop. 64 is not without flaws but nevertheless carries tremendous potential for righting the wrongs of the past, basically by giving people a chance to start over. It retroactively reduced certain convictions – felonies became misdemeanors, misdemeanors became infractions – and dismissed some convictions altogether. For youth, it also allowed court records to be destroyed, giving them a clean slate. 

Many people, however, remain unaware that they are entitled to legal relief under Prop. 64. Others are deterred by the cumbersome process, which can include having to hire a lawyer to petition the court. 

We have an obligation to help them. 

Together with Supervisor Hilda Solis, I have authored a motion to create a plan for facilitating the resentencing of minor marijuana convictions in Los Angeles County. The Office of Cannabis Management would collaborate with various county departments and agencies, as well as the courts and community stakeholders, to develop strategies that are timely, accessible, and cost-effective. 

The motion also seeks to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, particularly racial disparities in law enforcement. A disturbing pattern has emerged in jurisdictions that legalized marijuana. In Alaska, for example, overall marijuana-related arrests fell post-legalization, but blacks were still arrested 10 times more often than whites. In Washington D.C. and Colorado, the ratio was closer to 4:1 and 3:1. 

Throughout my career, I have made criminal justice reform a priority. I have worked to improve relations between law enforcement and the public they are sworn to protect and serve; to facilitate resentencing under Prop. 47; to create diversion programs for the mentally ill, who should not be in jail in the first place; and to support reentry programs aimed at helping ex-offenders become productive members of society after serving their time. 

Too many lives have already been upended, and communities adversely affected, by actions that, as of New Year’s Day 2018, are no longer considered crimes in California. If we, as a society, value justice and improving lives, then we must make the most of correcting wrong-headed criminal justice practices of the past and promote a future that is defined by enlightened accountability.

 

(Mark Ridley-Thomas is Supervisor for LA County’s 2nd District.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.