The political and moral contradictions of decriminalizing marijuana

The decriminalization of marijuana, the new Photo: Ronald Moten

WASHINGTON, October 24, 2012 – Last night at the Anacostia town hall meeting on the decriminalization of marijuana, issues were raised on both sides of the controversy. The same issues that face District of Columbia City Council members as they prepare for an upcoming vote on Council member Tommy Wells’ bill that would decriminalize marijuana.

For the proponents of legalization, this is the next step now that lobbyists for medical marijuana have won their battle; but it has also resulted in many political and moral contradictions and conflicts.

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One of the justifications for decriminalization is a recent study by the ACLU which concludes that blacks and whites use the drug at about the same rate even though 9 out of 10 people locked up for marijuana in D.C. are black or other minorities. Others, like Lydell Mann who uses what he calls an herb, verus a drug, asked preachers, “Which one of you were there to hear God tell Adam and Eve what herbs to use and not to use?”

Mann has said that marijuana helped him recover from pain and serious injury. He argues that full legalization is warranted based on research that demonstrates marijuana’s many health benefits. Others make the argument that marijuana use also has negative effects such increased cases of asthma, financial distress and, especially in poor neighborhoods, habitual self-medication and, opponents arguel that marijuana is often a gateway to other narcotics.

Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander opposes Wells’ bill. She was quoted in the City Paper by Will Sommer as saying, “I say if it’s illegal, keep it illegal.” She has a valid point given that Ward 7 has many children who often arrive late to school smelling like marijuana. She also has employers complaining that her constituents are not employable because they cannot pass drug tests.

But then Alexander contradicted herself when she learned that there are so few D.C. residents taking advantage of the opportunity to have marijuana legally prescribed by a doctor for medical reasons. Alexander suddenly became concerned with the fact the marijuana dispensaries are losing money rather than becoming cash cows for the D.C. treasury as expected. Once that came to her attention, she hinted that she was open to expanding the list of diseases approved for its use beyond those already included such as HIV/AIDS and cancer.

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Now Alexander wants to include migraine headaches, digestive ailments and post-traumatic stress disorder. If she is against its decriminalization, why expand its availability for medicinal purposes simply because the income from medicinal marijuana use is not living up to its projections?

The so-called “war on drugs” has always been about money, not about what is right or wrong. For documentation on the history of how both Democratic and Republican law makers, judges and law enforcement agencies benefit from the mass the incarceration of black men resulting from the war on drugs, read the book by Michelle Alexander The New Jim Crow.

Now many liberal politicians are figuring out how to generate more revenue for the government through the decriminalization of marijuana. It starts with medical use and decriminalization, but once that genie is out of the bottle, will harder drugs follow?

Mayor Vincent Gray knows how to spin the issue so that he will not be accused of legalizing marijuana. Gray made it clear that for him it is all about the money, not about morals or safety when he said, “Having marijuana shouldn’t mean jail, but not paying your bill should.”

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The idea is to create a new revenue stream for the District by reducing the possession of small amounts of marijuana to a civil offense and fining offenders $100. While current penalties under federal law for possession of marijuana are certainly too harsh and destructive to people of color, Wells and his supporters are, at the very least, ignoring the arguments that contradict their own stated concerns about our children’s education and soaring black unemployment.  

Reducing possession to a civil offense will dramatically affect both school and job performance. Decriminalization in D.C. does not mean employers won’t drug test employees. Are the mayor, the council and their progressive pot-smoking supporters ready to fund assistance for those who lose their jobs or drop out of school because their drug of choice will be so easily accessible and the penalty for possession so light?

Will there be mandatory drug addiction and education classes for those who go from recreational use to self-medication? What about adults like Maryland Democratic gubernatorial candidate Douglas Gansler who make excuses for not stopping underage drinking? Why should we think it will be different with marijuana?

While the District might decriminalize marijuana, employers, including the city’s largest, the federal government, still have drug testing. Isn’t it hard enough for blacks to get jobs with a real unemployment rate of 25 percent overall and 50 percent for black teens without making such a popular drug even more accessible?

Who is going to hire someone with dirty urine for a construction job driving heavy equipment or for a position in a federal agency that requires a security clearance? The argument that alcohol abuse is the same as drug use is not true. Alcohol leaves the system in hours, marijuana takes 30 days. Wells, the general leading the battle for this “legislation of goodwill” acknowledged this when he admitted that it will be difficult to get employers to relax their drug policies since that would make it harder for them to get insurance.

Doing what is socially popular and that generates money for the government might not be the right thing to do for our most vulnerable citizens. Our leaders need to face their own political and moral contradicts on this issue and then come up with legislation that helps fix our broken criminal justice system rather than passing a law that could cause more problems. 

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Ronald Moten

Ronald L. “Mo” Moten is a fifth generation Washingtonian. He had brushes with the law as a youth and later was incarcerated at Danbury Federal Correction Institution where he earned his GED from the state of Connecticut. Upon his release from prison in 1995, Ron began providing outreach and then became the spokesman for Cease Fire Don’t Smoke the Brothers. He also taught at the Village Learning Center, one of the first D.C. Public Charter Schools. He was appointed to Ballou Senior High School PTSA, The Mayor’s Taskforce to Eliminate Homicides, and to Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton’s Commission on Black Men and Boys.

Ron is best known as a co-founder of Peaceoholics in 2004 with Jauhar Abraham. With Ron as the COO, Peaceoholics became a nationally known nonprofit organization successfully combating violence and promoting peace among youth. Peaceoholics’ results were remarkable sending 160 troubled youth to college, employing 361 D.C. citizens and brokering over forty truces between rival gangs. He and Mr. Abraham developed a curriculum called Rebuild the Village Triangle in One model for schools, institutions, and communities that focuses on positive youth and family development, and empowering communities.

In 2012 Ron ran as a “Civil Rights Republican” for the Ward 7 D.C. City Council seat. He is committed to the historic principles of the Party of Abraham Lincoln, Jack Kemp, and the many black Civil Rights Republicans who fought for freedom, responsibility and opportunity such as Fredrick Douglass, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Dr. Benjamin Carson, and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.


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