Amid Protests and Civil Unrest, Drug Policy Enters the National Debate

As the country has an honest discussion about police brutality and systemic racism, the fifty-year War on Drugs enters the debate.

People protest police brutality against African Americans. Chicago, Illinois, USA - December 7, 2014 - People protest police brutality against African Americans. Source: iStock

Cannabis – even broader ‘drug’ – policies have been one of the loudest, if largely unspoken, elements in the Black Lives Matter protests that have been on display from coast to coast these past few weeks. But as politicians now seek legislative solutions to combat the civil unrest, cannabis and other ‘drug’ policies are now starting to play a much larger role in the national debate.

Before we get to the legislative solutions coming from the political class, let’s spend some time on the steamy pavement with the protestors who forced policing reform back onto the national agenda after George Floyd was murdered on camera by a Minneapolis police officer last month.

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Just outside the White House, protestor Alex Walker, 24, explained to Wikileaf that legalizing cannabis – both at the state level and, of course, at the federal level – would be a massive step towards reconciling some of the tension that’s been brewing between minorities like himself and the nation’s police.

“It would stop a lot of incarceration and poverty,” Walker said. “A lot of that comes from cops, you know, ticketing people for nonviolent offenses, and drug laws are one of the most popular ways to actually combat that.”

Walker’s from Toledo, Ohio. He’s seen his friend’s lives ruined from small cannabis charges. That’s made him distrust what he sees as a for-profit police industry, because many police forces across the nation have relied on local drug arrests to fund their departments.

“They make a big ass profit off of it. You know, it’s very easy to bust people with a couple grams, you know, and it’s very easy to…profit off of it, and then your whole life is ruined,” Walker said. “You might go away for a decent amount of time and your kids are growing up without any type of parents from that kind of offspring. It’s horrible.”

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That for-profit policing has sown deep seeds of distrust between many communities and their own police departments. Last month Virginia decriminalized marijuana (which takes effect July first), but even people of color there are dubious of the new law.

“Either way, they’ll try to get black people on it,” Mani, 18, of Arlington, Virginia said after smoking a joint near the White House at a recent peaceful protest. “Virginia’s white, so, I mean, I won’t see a change no time soon.”

But Mani says it doesn’t have to be this way. He just wishes politicians would open their eyes and see the failure of the soc-called war on drugs already.

“Everybody’s going to do what they want to do when it comes to drugs,” Mani told Wikileaf. “It’ll just keep coming back.”

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Another glaring problem is even in states that have legalized cannabis but who still have hundreds to thousands of predominantly black and brown people locked up for the same substance that’s now as legal as sipping a beer.

“I have a lot of friends that I grew up with that have that criminal charge of being arrested for weed,” Brea, 26, of Washington, D.C. told Wikileaf. “But now weed’s just legal, but they still have that criminal charge on their record. So that’s one of the disparities there.”

Some of the nation’s political class have taken note, including California Democratic Congresswoman Jackie Spear who tied “the cancer of racism that’s festered & destroyed black lives” to the ‘war on drugs.’

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Former Republican, yet newly minted libertarian, Congressman Justin Amash of Michigan went further and called for an end of the drug war altogether.

But after a surprising jobs report at the start of the month, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy of California ripped on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats for calling for the nation’s political class to prop up the nation’s cannabis class.

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House and Senate Democrats have unveiled a proposal for sweeping police reforms, which includes provisions to make it easier to prosecute bad actors in police forces nationwide while also setting up a national registry to track the nation’s locally run police forces.

The proposal also would end no-knock ‘drug’ warrants, like the one that just recently led to the death of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky after officers busted into her house, killed her, and then realized they had the wrong address.

But the Republican senator tasked with providing a GOP alternative to ending no-knock warrants, Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), says he isn’t sure no-knock warrants are bad, even as he says Taylor’s killing was “tragic.”

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“I want to take the Breonna Taylor case and have an act that requires more data to be provided so we can actually come out with policies that are consistent with the best use of no-knocks, or the elimination of no-knocks. We just don’t have the information to get there,” Scott said on Meet the Press.

Still, many Democrats are past studies.

“We are in a nation right now where the sense of what’s possible has shifted,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said on Face the Nation, where he also brushed aside calls for what he dubbed “lowest-common-denominator, watered-down reforms.”

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“It’s a time to stop the problem,” Booker said. “Because if someone’s knee is on your neck, you can’t take it halfway off and say that that’s progress.”

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