By Allen St. Pierre, NORML Executive Director
Despite the bizarre claims of some prohibitionists and law enforcement representatives that ‘no one in America gets arrested or goes to jail for cannabis charges’, NORML receives hundreds of emails and letters a week from our fellow citizens who’ve been negatively impacted by cannabis prohibition laws–notably due to an encounter with law enforcement.
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A few weeks ago I received a letter from a father of a young man arrested and incarcerated on minor cannabis-related charges in Arlington, Virginia. The father’s lament is deep and profound, beyond the standard pleas for help NORML so regularly receives. So much so that I asked him if he would send NORML the original letter for publication.
A few local points of interest to those outside of the Washington, D.C. area. Arlington county is by most measures one of the more ‘liberal’ and tolerant counties in the commonwealth, maybe the most liberal. Thousands of people who work for the federal government, political partisans, non profit organizations and trade associations reside in Arlington, which has an ever-shrinking native African American community. The writer clearly sets out to make it clear that supposedly progressive counties like Arlington still have a dark side regarding how disproportionately minorities are ensnared into the criminal justice system for cannabis, and how dramatic the impact is to them, their family members–and the taxpayer’s of Arlington.
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The Barnes family’s experience in Arlington plays out across the nation every single day, where minorities are arrested at rates three to one, and higher, with even greater disparity regarding incarceration.
In fact The New York Times just reported on such last Wednesday in an apropos article entitled ‘White Smokes Pot, But Blacks Get Arrested.‘
Racial / Ethnic breakdown of only American adults who have used cannabis
While it is true that most cannabis consumers who get busted for possession do not go to jail or prison on the first offense (however, tens of thousands of Americans are incarcerated annually on cannabis-related charges, including on mere possession charges, often for subsequent possession arrests), a positive drug test submitted whilst on probation can often land otherwise minor cannabis possession cases into jail or prison, most acutely to minorities and the poor.
The practice is called ’shock incarceration’.
Many citizens–rich and poor, black and white–self-medicate with cannabis to try to work through any number of mental disorders, from bipolarity to attention deficit disorders to post-traumatic stress, however, a life-shattering introduction into the tax coffer-draining criminal justice system is hardly the proper prescription for their health struggles.
December 9, 2009
Re: Joshua Barnes, incarceration for distribution of several ounces of marijuana and probation violation pertaining to same.
Dear Mr. St. Pierre:
On February 13, 2009 my son Joshua Barnes was incarcerated in Arlington County, Virginia for possession and distribution of four ounces or less of marijuana on three occasions in 2008 and for violation of probation pertaining to several possessions and distribution charges, also of four ounces or less of marijuana in 2005. On September 19, 2009 Arlington County Circuit Judge Benjamin Kendrick sentenced Joshua on the former charge to five years with two and one-half years suspended plus three years of supervised probation effective immediately upon his release. Then on October 2, 2009, fellow Circuit Court Judge James Almond sentenced him to an additional fourteen months of the 2006 four-year suspended sentence, to be served consecutively in the penitentiary. The combined time will confine my son for roughly forty four months, minus fifteen percent plus an additional three years of probation immediately upon release, all totaling more than six years under law enforcement control and scrutiny.
In Arlington County, as in any predominately white enclave a black before the courts is likely to be the recipient of justice compromised. Whether you perceive yourself as black, white or any of the other commonly used arbitrary colors to designate one’s racial/ethnic classification we must step up to the plate and be candid with ourselves in regard to “what is” in dealing with this reality. We must be mindful that we are not dealing with mere machines but humans whose mental processes and emotions do play major roles in the composition of personality. To put it another way, what we perceive by means of whatever medium molds our conscience, thus; our reactions are in response. Invariably, for example, the average white’s response to black male’s presence in the immediate vicinity while stopped awaiting the signal light to change is to activate the door locks. This common response fosters the criminal image of the black male held by whites and negatively impacts the mindset when the latter sits in judgment, be it the role of the judge, juror, or prosecutor on a black fate. To put it blatantly, for whites one of the foremost traits of blacks is criminal. When blacks behave accordingly, whites’ racist contention is fulfilled and appeasement is rewarded as a consequence. For those in rejoice regarding the behavior it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy is achieved. Any major newspaper of cities where blacks are in substantial numbers will have mug shots of black males in their daily crime sections. This further fuels the mindset regarding and criminal black male and gives greater reinforcement and criminal nature of blacks, particularly the black male.
Therefore, it is illogical and ludicrous to assume (it is only an assumption) that the average white judge, juror prosecutor or any other role player involved will suddenly and miraculously be impartial and color-blind when acting in judgment on the fate of a black, especially black male. Ideally, we wish human nature would allow us to vacate our personal prejudices, if only temporarily.
Justice, as many of us are aware of can be manipulated and often has a price tag. Unlikely, elite corporates, powerful industrialists, politicians, select entertainment moguls and etc. would be subjected to the same criminal system and receive comparable sentences for distribution of small amounts of marijuana and probation involving the same charges. It would be utterly unimaginable to witness a Kennedy, Bush, Gates, Bloomberg, Clinton, McCartney, Buffet, Oprah Winfrey or the likes who received the same fate as Joshua for the same non-violent violation. This tactic of using power to influence justice is probably as old as prostitution and man’s enjoyment from his marijuana use. Moreover, this reality is closely akin to the old adage, “might makes right”. Unfortunately, in this regard we are not of the class referenced. Thus, we are not able to mold justice to render it more human or even unethically circumvent it, as mentioned.
It is a given when it come to white/black matters, ingrained color, prejudice trumps reason. In my view, most whites do not want to reside with blacks in the same community, desire to worship or dine with them, be buried in the same cemetery and certainly not engage in romantic relationships and etc. Again it is far-fetched and insane to think that the courts or any segment of society is free of partiality predicated on color of skin.
Theoretically, we as a society do by reason utilize imprisonment as a plausible measure to remove those from the general populace who do harm or present imminent endangerment to society. We, as the most civilized, technologically advanced with the most powerful military in history, should not make laws to take away human freedom because these are merely laws in-and-of themselves, minus moral judgment. Compare marijuana’s use and consequences to some other substances, legal or illegal. Alcohol use, especially excessive consumption, produces grave consequences in that it contributes to deaths of tens of thousands and causes untold injuries to millions more. Also, it is the leading cause of certain types of cancer. In many alcohol related cases, if not most involving manslaughter the guilty is assessed a lighter sentence than Joshua. For instance, doctors found guilty of medical malpractice resulting in the death of their patients often times are not more severely punished. Moreover, many other crimes resulting in severe bodily harm receive less incarceration time.
Marijuana use has been around for hundreds if not thousands of years without producing known destruction to human welfare. In the past few decades tens of millions of Americans have smoked marijuana and millions more still partake. Statistically, as much as forty-percent of all adult Americans (They have not moved on to harsher drugs as some contend) smoke or have smoked marijuana. Many keep or would keep on occasion a few ounces for their own personal use (or “stash”). “A Gallup Poll in October found forty-four percent of Americans favor full legalization of marijuana –a rise of 13 points since 2000, (“Support for legalizing of Marijuana Grows Rapidly U.S.”, Karl Vick, The Washington Post. Monday, November 23, 2009).”
Joshua was a heavy smoker and also consumed substantial amounts of alcohol himself. His addiction in-and-of itself caused him self-destruction and eventual doom, especially with the commonwealths legal system. I reiterate the message that history does not provide real horror stories pertaining to consequences of marijuana use.
Conversely, the use of alcohol, heroin, crack, methamphetamine, cigarette, coffee, Tylenol and other contrabands have had devastating impacts on most, if not all of us at some time. In regard, we do grave disservice to ourselves and society by denying the truth, thus avoidable destruction and pain are prolonged. As appalling as it is we devote much valued time, energy, and resources to apprehend and imprison citizens for possession and sale of a few ounces of marijuana when we, as a nation, face far daunting tasks. Violent crimes remain throughout this land. Many of us cannot safely walk the streets of our neighborhood during daylight hours let alone at night. Racial and religious hostilities are still prevalent in the land, just to name a few. The polls show that there is a real movement to transform laws governing marijuana, but many are still staunchly oriented toward maintaining the ages-old practice of filling jail and prison cells with more and more predominately young black males who have no history of violent crimes. As a result of these immoral practices they cause these families of black males to struggle and endure unwanted suffering.
Resources expended to take away the freedom of these blacks would be more wisely used to educate them and others, but; those in the prison/court complex are often opposed and they are the real beneficiaries. The courts are not sentimental and are impervious to the harm and grief brought upon these individuals and their families as a result of the sentenced due to non-violent crimes. In Joshua’s case the court also ignored the matter of Joshua’s Attention Deficit Disorder history. Moreover, six days following his incarceration on February 13, 2009, his girlfriend gave birth to his first son, and our first grandchild.
As a final assessment, any harmful affect to any individual or society as a result of Joshua’s action is absent. Conversely, racial animosity and backlash of the systematic imprisonment of black males is a major instrument in widening the wedge in black/white efforts to alleviate vestiges of centuries-old racial inequalities and strife. In the final analysis, where is the human harm caused by Joshua’s action? Do his actions warrant, in a moral sense the take-away of his freedom and, consequently the denial of a father for his new-born?
These marijuana laws are likened to the Poll Tax Laws of the Jim Crow Era in that they disenfranchise millions, particularly blacks. In the near future, history will show that, again we allowed flawed government policies to damage the image, soul, and fabric of America. In conclusion, we should all hope sincerely and pray, color-blind to a color-blind god that we be delivered from our heart-held prejudices, long entrenched in hatred to a humane state of consciousness where love dictates.