Weed debates and root problems
I didnâ€™t vote for Amendent 64, which legalized marijuana for recreational use in my home state of Colorado. I had mixed feelings about it. When marijuana was legalized for medical use in 2000, the effect on my small mountain community wasnâ€™t something to celebrate. The majority of people who got licenses for medical marijuana were young men under the age of 34. At least legalization for recreational use will put a stop to that farce.
In my two-stoplight town, two medical marijuana â€śdispensariesâ€ťâ€”along with a paraphernalia shop and a â€śgrowâ€ť shopâ€”opened within five blocks of one another. In the four years that these facilities were open (two of the four are now closed), there were three robberies and one â€ścontributing to the delinquency of a minorâ€ť crime associated with them. That's a lot for my small community.
At the same time, I am aware that our laws around marijuana are ineffective and that the â€śwar on drugsâ€ť has had deeply damaging effects. I know that the 1980sâ€™ tighter drug laws led to one in five black men being locked up, in the establishment of what Michelle Alexander has called the â€śNew Jim Crow.â€ť I am not opposed to changing the structure of these laws, nor am I opposed to legalization of marijuana on the whole, but I do not think legalization is anything close to a panacea. A great deal of structural, social and legal shifts will be necessary before any true, positive change can take place.
In an interview I did with Alexander last year, she reminded me that the New Jim Crow is not caused by legal structure aloneâ€”and that if we do not address it in a comprehensive form, it will simply reinvent itself:
If we were just to return to the incarceration rates of the 1970s, before the War on Drugs and the get-tough movement began, we would have to release four out of five of the people in prison today. A million people employed by the criminal justice system would lose their jobs. To talk in a serious way about ending the system means grappling with its scale.
But Alexander insists that this is not a legal problem in itself. It is fundamentally a problem of valuing the lives of some more than the lives of others. Changing the New Jim Crow, she says, â€śis going to require a new public consensus that the lives of poor kids in the â€™hood are equally valuable as the lives of the kids populating our college campuses.â€ť
I cannot see how legalizing marijuana in Colorado addresses this problem. Meanwhile, I will certainly be curious to see how the new law affects my own neighborhood.