Black Community Split Over Legalizing Marijuana

In November, Californians will vote on a measure that would legalize, tax and regulate marijuana. African-Americans may be the crucial swing vote. But the black community is split on the issue. Some, like California NAACP President Alice Huffman, say legalizing pot would keep more young, black men out of jail. Others, including bishop Ron Allen, of the International Faith Based Coalition, fear it will encourage more drug use. Host Michel Martin talks to Huffman and Allen about the tense debate.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, the head of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's U.S. programs on teaching and learning in the 21st century. We'll hear why he thinks education is the civil rights issue of our time.

But first, marijuana and race. We'll talk about why black voters in California are divided over a proposal to legalize cannabis. The measure is known as Proposition 19. And the way African-Americans vote could determine whether it passes or not.

According to a study by the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that supports legalization, African-Americans in L.A. County are more than three times as likely as white Americans to be arrested for marijuana possession. So for some voters, Proposition 19 is a civil rights issue a death knell to Jim Crow justice.

But for others, marijuana is a gateway drug, a gateway to drugs that destroy African-American families. So we wanted to talk more about this debate. So we've called Alice Huffman, the president of the California branch of the NAACP. She's officially on record in support of Proposition 19 and legalization.

Also with us, from Sacramento, is Ron Allen. He's bishop and president of what's called the International Faith Based Coalition, in California. And I welcome you both, and I thank you both for speaking with us.

Ms. ALICE HUFFMAN (President of California Branch, NAACP): Thank you.

Dr. RON ALLEN (President and CEO, International Faith Based Coalition): Glad to be here.

MARTIN: Now, first, Bishop Allen, you said you know firsthand the damage drugs can do. And you've mentioned that you are a former addict yourself. Do I have that right?

Dr. ALLEN: Yes, you do have that right.

MARTIN: And so how does that factor into your position on marijuana legalization?

Dr. ALLEN: It's very clear that marijuana is a still a gateway drug. I understand that it might not have the same effects as alcohol, but neither does ecstasy have the same effect as alcohol. Each individual drug has its own effect. And marijuana has been a gateway drug for such a long time, and especially with the increase of THC, 24 to 37 percent. It's certainly not the same drug, same cannabis that was smoked 10, 15, 20 years ago. It is absolutely a gateway drug. I started with marijuana, and graduated from marijuana to harder drugs.

MARTIN: How do you respond, though, to the empirical data that shows - not just in California but nationally - that African-Americans are far more likely to suffer negative criminal consequences for drug use than whites are - according to a study by the Drug Policy Alliance, which does endorse legalization, it has to be said. But blacks and Latinos make up less than 44 percent of California's population, but they're 56 percent of all marijuana arrests. What do you say about that?

Dr. ALLEN: You know, we agree in the disparities of arrests. That's another show. And that's another debate. We absolutely agree with that. But not only are blacks arrested for marijuana, when we take a look at crack cocaine and other crimes that are committed in the black neighborhood, we can see the disparities of arrests there also.

So do we legalize crack cocaine? Do we legalize burglary? Do we legalize murder? Yes, we do need to talk and have a dialogue - why blacks are being arrested and Latinos, more than anyone else. But legalizing marijuana is not the answer.

MARTIN: Alice Huffman, what do you say to that?

Ms. HUFFMAN: Well, I say, first of all, when it comes to rescuing our children out of the criminal justice system, we need to do more than talk. We need to look at the causes as to why they are there disproportionately, and take action. And I think the drug policies for the last 40 years have failed our community. They have targeted our community. The evidence proves that they have targeted our community, and that there needs to be a change in the policy.

I think the Mr. Allen, who has used drugs - which I have not - might feel like they are the gateway. But I would submit that that's probably to an addictive personality, and not necessarily a generalization that you can make across the board. Were he not if he were true, white people use marijuana 10 times more 10 times is exaggeration, but significantly more than African-Americans and Latinos.

You don't see them migrating to the other drugs; they use it recreationally. Now, I'm not advocating the use of marijuana. That's where I think he's missing our position.

MARTIN: I understand. You're not advocating the use of it, but you're saying that legalization would be a step toward closing the gap in criminalization and all that flows with it. But I want to ask, why would legalization help?

Ms. HUFFMAN: I'm calling for the regulation of marijuana.

MARTIN: And how would that help the situation, in your view?

Ms. HUFFMAN: Because it would take the little dealers off the streets. It would take the intrigue out of having to go and get illicit drug like marijuana. It would make things level in California, where you have some people who can pay $100 and go to a pot doctor's clinic, get a certificate, and go to a cannabis dispensary and buy drugs.

Why should our children be locked up for marijuana, their whole future destroyed, when so many people in society are using it, when some of the best-known people in the world, that we honor, have used it. And if you take the reverend's position, Bill Clinton would be - although he didn't inhale - he'd be on crack.

Obama - although he smoked it - he would be on crack cocaine. I mean, this is a -kind of a ridiculous solution that he has to a problem, which I call a non-solution. At least we're working on a solution.

MARTIN: Bishop Allen, can I just ask you about this? There are those who argue that this is the prohibition of our time, and that alcohol has many negative effects over time, obviously, which are well-known. But prohibition didn't work. And there are those who say prohibition this is essential we have it with marijuana; it's not working now. What do you say to that?

Dr. ALLEN: So we legalize marijuana, what's the less of the two evils: alcohol or marijuana or tobacco? We certainly see that marijuana is the leading addiction in youth. That's coming out of SAMHSA. It is a ridiculous thought to advocate for blacks to stay high, and believe that incarceration is going to go down. How do you educate an intoxicated mind?

It is in the name of the NAACP - for the advancement of colored people - to pull back and to say - and to throw in the white flag and say, hey, listen, this is what we're going to do. We're going to legalize marijuana so when you get pulled over by a police officer, you will not get arrested.

Well, we already know that you're not going to be arrested for 28.5 grams. That's one ounce. And Proposition 19 does nothing to take care of that. This is not a civil rights issue.

Ms. HUFFMAN: I think it is a civil rights issue.

MARTIN: Well, let's let Ms. Huffman respond, bishop. Alice Huffman?

Ms. HUFFMAN: Yes. It is a civil rights issue. Anytime government discriminates in its application of the law, as far as I'm concerned, it is a civil rights issue. And I want you to notice the inflamed language he's using. No one has ever advocated that people get high and go to school. People are smoking marijuana now. If the police pull over someone who's intoxicated, whatever they're intoxicated for, the law says that they should be arrested.

MARTIN: Okay. But his point is that the application of the law is the issue, not the law itself. What's your thought about that?

Ms. HUFFMAN: The application of the law is absolutely the issue. That's why I believe it's a civil rights issue. Just like they do racial profiling against blacks, this is another form of racial profiling, where they stop young black kids. They get them into the system for the fingerprint and the misdemeanor, then they already have them identified and ready to go to to the next level.

MARTIN: I understand. Now...

Ms. HUFFMAN: And they're populating the prisons with our kids.

MARTIN: I apologize for the fact that we don't have more time with this conversation, which is obviously very important and you both feel very strongly about this. And I wanted to ask whether your respective communities, as we said, the African-American vote may be the deciding factor here. What is your sense of how the communities feel about this? Do people have similarly strong feelings? Alice, I'll let you respond.

Ms. HUFFMAN: Yes, I went to my national convention on the heels of this man being on the air, calling for my resignation. We passed a resolution at that national convention, that the NAACP should do a study on the impact of marijuana on our children across the country. No one disagreed that it was not a civil rights issue. Everyone - not everyone but some people, especially the clergy, are worried about whether or not we're going to advocate for the increased use, which is in our resolution that we're not.

MARTIN: I understand. Bishop, I gave you the first words, so I'm going to give Ms. Huffman the last word. And I thank you both for your courtesy. I understand it's a very difficult issue, and I do appreciate both of your - joining us today.

Ron Allen is bishop and president of the International Faith Based Coalition. He's adamantly opposed to a measure to legalize marijuana in California. He joined us from Sacramento. We were also joined by Alice Huffman, president of the California NAACP. And Ms. Huffman endorses Proposition 19. And I thank you both.

Dr. ALLEN: Thank you.

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