By Marie Brand
In the New Yorker’s recent interview with Barack Obama, the President discusses his, albeit reluctant, support of marijuana legalization. While we all know what the extreme right and the Nancy Graces of the world think, there are murmurs of discontent among decriminalization advocates.
The contention is that Barack Obama didn’t say enough or do enough. His opinion about the “danger” of marijuana use is what they take issue with because, as any well-studied pot smoker will tell you, marijuana is not dangerous at all. While it wouldn’t have taken much research for the President to learn that pot smokers are not endangering themselves or anyone else, (a simple Google search would have sufficed) I cannot in good conscience believe that his statements weren’t a step forward in marijuana advocacy and activism. Progress doesn’t always look pretty in it’s packaging, and sometimes it’s misinformed, but a step forward is that, a step forward.
So where is this progress that I’m speaking of, what profound statement did Mr. Obama make about marijuana that will move us closer to legalization? It definitely wasn’t his thoughts on it’s relation to alcohol, or even his admittance that often times the guys making, creating and supporting the laws that punish users, have probably puff puff passed a few times themselves. It was his recognition of who predominantly gets punished by these laws.
The President pointed out what we here on the ground level of pot activism know all to well; Blacks and Latinos are getting hit the hardest by these laws. And it’s about damn time he said it! Marijuana saves lives, marijuana relieves pain, marijuana heals the sick but for poor Black and Latino kids across the country, marijuana is a one way ticket to a cell.
Our President is a black man, and although I long for the day when that won’t matter, our current state of race relations in this country makes that fact an overwhelmingly important one. When talking about how race and marijuana legislation intersect, his statements take on the prison industrial complex beast that no other President has been able to discuss as intimately.
We can empathize, we can quote statistics, we can rally against the laws that bind men and women of color to the prison system, but when the President speaks about how we treat our youth of color it’s a big deal. We have a President who admittedly inhaled, and has a face that reminds us that he too was once that young, black teen. He was a young, black teen who smoked the same joint that lands many that look like him into our jails and prisons.
When the President of the free world says we got a problem with race and weed in this country, people listen. When we can’t look away, when we realize that he represents the face of those we lock away for marijuana related crimes, it’s definitely going to stir the pot. Parents and family of these disproportionately penalized groups of youth finally have a voice. The President is calling out the prosecutors and judges who hide behind procedure and mandatory minimums to punish these young people. In a time when affluenza is the newest affirmative defense, he’s called a spade a spade, and addressed inequality of access to adequate representation of the poor in marijuana related prosecution.
Our President is an example of what these men could have become, what they could be without facing the harshest punishments that end their lives, while many of their rich and/or white counterparts will still have access to upward mobility.
Touted as a sign of a post-racial society, to many President Obama’s success, reinforces the romantic idea that youth of color in this country have access to an even playing field. When the President bravely points out that our legislation surrounding marijuana eliminates that chance for so many people of color, we realize that he is the exception not the rule. This is not progress to everyone, but a cold hard look at truth is always progress in my book.
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