U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, commander in chief of Washington's failed war on drugs, recently issued what looks a lot like a domestic version of Vermont Sen. George Aiken's famous 1966 face-saving formula for exiting from America's lost war in Vietnam: Declare victory and get out. After more than 58,000 U.S. deaths, that's exactly what we did.
And now a timely American Civil Liberties Union report, titled “The War on Marijuana in Black and White,” explains why Holder's similar announcement is especially good news for blacks nationwide and in Oklahoma.
Sensing that the U.S. war on marijuana is also unwinnable — and after more than 8 million marijuana arrests in the past 10 years — Holder declared in late August that his department won't challenge the statutes in Colorado and Washington state legalizing marijuana for recreational use or the laws that permit medical marijuana in 16 other states.
Black and white Americans paid a dear price in Vietnam. But the war on drugs has taken a much larger toll on blacks than whites here at home, even as the rates of marijuana use among the two groups is roughly equal. In 2010, for example, 14 percent of blacks and 11.6 percent of whites reported using marijuana in the past year, but blacks were nearly four times more likely to be stopped and arrested on marijuana charges.
In its first report, issued in 1989, the Office of National Drug Control Policy said, “To prevent people from using drugs, drug enforcement activities must make it increasingly difficult to engage in any drug activity with impunity. … Effective street-level enforcement means dramatically increasing the number of drug offenders arrested.”
Troop levels escalated again and again in Vietnam before we finally declared “victory” and pulled out. The war on marijuana followed a similar trajectory as the nation desperately tried to arrest its way to victory. In 1995, 520,000 persons nationwide were arrested for possession (not selling) marijuana; in 2010, that number skyrocketed to 784,000.
The share of blacks who died in Vietnam (12.5 percent) was about equal to their share of those of military age in the population (13.5 percent). In America's arrest-driven drug war, however, blacks have experienced a much higher casualty rate. Nationally, blacks are 3.7 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession. Oklahoma blacks, in 2010, accounted for only 8 percent of the state's population but were hit with 21 percent of the 10,478 arrests for marijuana possession.
The ACLU reports that more than a third of those arrested for marijuana possession were teenagers and preteens and that marijuana enforcement in Oklahoma in 2010 cost the taxpayers more than $30.8 million. The ACLU recommends ending the war on marijuana and legalizing its use for persons older than 21 through a system of taxation, licensing and regulation.
Is that where Holder — at last — is taking the federal government?
Fraser writes on public policy issues for DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization.