This year at Netroots Nation, Raw Story was asking 5 Questions of various panel speakers, exhibitors and attendees about issues you didn’t hear addressed on the main stage.
Ask a Netroots attendee who is most interested and likely to be affected by marijuana policy reform, and chances are they’ll evoke images of young, male, white recreational marijuana smokers — who, it turns out, are the least likely to face lifelong consequences for their actions. Raw Story sat down with Derek Rosenfeld (left), the Internet Communications Associate at the Drug Policy Alliance, and Daniel Robelo (right), the organization’s research coordinator, to talk about who decriminalization will really help, why so many politicians who used to smoke pot are such hypocrites about the issue and who else medical marijuana might help.
Raw Story: During the panel Thursday, Daniel talked a lot about the racism inherent in our current drug law, and there was a recent report out calling drug laws the new Jim Crow. But when people think about who would benefit from marijuana policy and legalization, the stereotype is of a white, bearded stoner. Why do you think it is that even many liberals still hold fast to the latter stereotype when the long-term negative impacts fall disproportionately on minority communities? Why are they unaware of the racist overtones of these laws?
Rosenfeld: When it comes to marijuana arrests specifically, they’re happening for the most part in the inner city, in communities of color, they’re happening to young black and brown male, and those are stats that are getting swept under the rug and grouped with lots of other arrests happening. In New York City, where I’m from, marijuana arrests are the number one arrest for all crimes, and you have 40,000 plus arrests happening in New York City, and they’re happening predominately to young African-American males and these unfortunately can often be situations where they have a public defender defending them, and the public defender is overwhelmed with cases, and sometimes they’ll plead guilty in the interest of saving time, money, any sort of resources that are very limited to begin with. But in the suburbs, where it’s most whites who are using marijuana — even though whites and blacks use marijuana at the same rates, you’re almost seven times more likely to get arrested in you’re African-American.
So why are they unaware [of that]? It’s because it’s happening in places where there isn’t an outrage, there aren’t parents who can get out there in front of the media and really call this what it is. The Stop and Frisk program especially is responsible for most of the arrests that are happening, and it’s not really whites who are getting stopped and having these issues. It’s a race thing, and it’s unfortunate that it has to come to that.
The messaging with Stop and Frisk is, “We’re doing this in the interest of safety” and “We’re doing this to keep guns off the street,” and “We’re doing this to prevent terrorism.” Well, the stats show that such a minute fraction of the stops lead to a gun being found, and there are tons of violations to the program to begin with. The procedure is you’re supposed to be stopped only if you’re [deemed] suspicious, part of a criminal activity underway, but for the most part, being black is the reason most people are stopped to begin with. Then when it gets down to the patting, the pat-down of it, the police officer is supposed to feel on the outside of the clothing and can only then frisk — go into the pockets of somebody — if they feel what feels like a gun or a knife or a dangerous object. But they’re tricking most people by asking them to empty their pockets, and being a young African-American, I want to comply with the officer because anything I do can be perceived as dangerous can result in me being arrested or perhaps shot, I mean, there’s all sorts of horrible stories from Ramarley Graham, there’s tons of examples of the police brutality that comes out of an ordinary stop. So when they’re taking the marijuana out of their pockets and it becomes in public view, that becomes a misdemeanor offense.
So the Drug Policy Alliance was working up until [Friday], which is the last day of the legislative session, to fix the marijuana laws in New York state. We’re pushing a decriminalization bill that is supported by Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, Mayor Bloomberg, Governor Cuomo, has been supported by tons of activists and political groups, and yet Albany is so dysfunctional that we can’t get the reform that’s needed.
If we could successfully reform our marijuana laws in New York State — like I said, it’s the number one arrest — that would disappear. The police incentive won’t be there to stop people to be looking for marijuana. There’s just a wave of positive outcomes that would come from changing the laws.
Most of the people, like we said, are coming from the inner city, they may live in public housing. You lose that right to live in public housing if you get a marijuana arrest. You lose your ability to get a student loan. Jobs, it’ll come up on unemployment screenings, I mean, there’s just a whole list of problems which mostly affect the people that are being targeted for arrests in the first place.
So it comes back to your question: Why are people unaware? Because of all the negative outcomes of marijuana arrests aren’t really [a thing] in their communities. They’re almost mitigated right away by having access to an attorney or a wealthy family. Like, where I went to high school on Long Island? The kids I went to school with, if they were caught with marijuana by the police, they were either let go to begin with, so it never even reached the arrest, or their parents would be so outraged and invest all this money in attorneys that [police and/or prosecutors] would drop it quickly.
Raw Story: There is a lot of straight hypocrisy among even Democratic politicians on this issue, most of whom now admit they smoked pot. So they smoked pot which, had they been arrested, would’ve prevented them from having political careers, yet they want to continue the criminalization and arrests for people that are my age, your age, younger than us. Where do you think that hypocrisy comes from, this idea that we have to continue arresting people for stuff they admit to having done themselves?
Rosenfeld: The great example when you talk about Democrats specifically is the current president, Barack Obama, with his well-known adolescent marijuana use which was not an impediment to him reaching the presidency, his IQ was not lowered like Republicans like to claim happen from regular adolescent marijuana use. I mean, the last three presidents have all admitted to drug use, two of whom were Democrats, if we want to call them out specifically.
Drugs don’t discriminate: blacks, whites, Republicans, Democrats, we all use drugs pretty much at equal rates. So why do they want to keep arresting people? For some reason they think it looks like a good political strategy. But what we’ve seen in some recent races is that supporting marijuana reform is actually a winning issue. It’s no longer this third rail in political conversations. A lot of the conversations are still happening in the back room, where people are supportive there but not so supportive or really oppositional, actually, in public. But Congressman Beto O’Rourke from El Paso, Texas and Attorney General [Ellen] Rosenbloom from Oregon, they just won on supporting marijuana reform issues in their state. So this is no longer the third rail it was in the eighties, nineties, seventies, Nixon era. This is the twenty-first century, medical marijuana is legal in 18 states plus the District of Columbia. Plus with Colorado and Washington legalizing for recreational use, they’re showing that regulation is a model that people want, it works better, and there’s no need to be putting low-level marijuana offenders in prison anymore. There never was, it’s wasn’t a smart strategy, and for some reason Democrats want to hold onto this “being tough on crime approach,” but it’s never been useful. Being smart on crime is really a lot better than being tough on crime.
Robelo: I couldn’t agree more with everything that Derek said, and I just want to piggyback that is really has been this lack of political will, and then also certain incentives for certain actors to continue to support prohibition. The criminal justice industrial complex, if you want to call it that — prison guards, district attorneys — oppose even the most timid piecemeal reforms. But, it’s totally changing. The game is really changing. With the races that Derek mentioned, it was a winning issue, but if you look at Washington, the entire basically Washington delegation to Congress supported Initiative 502, as well as the Seattle local political establishment, Mayor McGinn and many others. So it’s changing. It’s been an issue where the people have led and the politicians have been forced to follow — in Colorado and Washington,we still saw that because it was a ballot initiative — but the tide is really turning where there are some politicians who are stepping up.
Then internationally, it’s kind the reverse situation, where you have politicians showing that real commodity — real political courage — and summoning that political will that so many politicians here in the States lack and pushing the ball forward. The Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos saying that we need to have an open debate, Otto Pérez Molina the present of Guatemala — all these guys, they’re right-wingers, they’re not sort of lefty doves by any means, they’re hard-liners, President Pérez Molina is a former military general — but their countries have borne the brunt of the underground market side of prohibition, the profits generated and the organized crime and corruption and extreme violence that has killed so many thousands of people in countries like Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico. So we’re seeing really a groundswell and things changing from below, that are going to force either this Administration or subsequent Administrations to change their tune, but also from above, from other countries. And I think that the tide is turning in that regard.
Raw Story: While California has had medical marijuana for a long time, so the Administration’s efforts to crack down on dispensaries and producers are really controversial. But how would you describe what the Administration is doing to someone from, say, Nebraska who just sees a pot dispensary shutting down and it seems like the Administration is being tough on crime?
Robelo: I would say that basically the federal government is running roughshod over our state’s rights. We have decided, the people have spoken, this is the system that we want. California is unique among the states in that it doesn’t have statewide regulations, so there are some problems with that. But here in the Bay Area, we’ve got responsible regulations all over the place — where I live in Oakland, where I was born, in San Francisco — we have no problems and actually the dispensaries are an essential part of our community. Their patient clientele frequent neighboring businesses, so it’s just been a virtuous circle when we’ve had responsible regulations, and that’s what it comes down to.
But I’d say to someone from Nebraska, “How would you feel if the federal government just trampled all over something that you voted for, that you want in your community?”
Raw Story: Like guns?
Robelo: For example, like guns. And during our session [we mentioned it], it’s very important, but it’s another way the federal government has trampled on the rights of medical marijuana patients [by keeping them from owning guns]. We haven’t been able to have sensible regulation of guns — we’re not talking about denying people the right to bear arms by any means, and the Drug Policy Alliance doesn’t have a stance on this issue — but where the country has failed to have any type of [broad] gun control, they want to target a very small group of people who are very unlikely to be at the root of any gun violence. So it’s kind of this bonkers situation where there is one class of people is deprived of their Second Amendment rights just by virtue of being a medical marijuana patient.
Raw Story: Looking at marijuana and PTSD patients, in California until recently, you could get a medical marijuana prescription but it might affect your care in the VA system. How do you talk about that issue with people outside of your direct community?
Robelo: Actually, the Drug Policy Alliance has been involved in advocating for veterans who so often after being asked to fight two wars, a decade of war, are coming back and falling victim to the War on Drugs. Predictably, with high rates of PTSD and traumatic brain injuries overlapping with substance abuse issues, high rates of prescription drugs for combat injuries and for PTSD treatment, and the Drug War is standing in the way of some of the best treatments available for PTSD: medical marijuana and this emerging research around MDMA (ecstasy), which started as a therapeutic aid, which just administered a handful of times along with traditional psychotherapy — it’s not the primary treatment, it’s just an adjunct to treatment — [we see] huge reductions in PTSD symptoms. Right now, there are only two approved medicines for PTSD: Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, and they have potential lethal interactions, especially with opioids for combat injuries’ pain. And so medical marijuana — we need to do that research, and we haven’t. As we were talking about [Thursday], most of that research is being done in Israel where there are so many people suffering from PTSD, not only people who have served in the military, which is compulsory in that country, but also who have suffered as a result of a terrorist attack or something like that as a civilian.
But we know that there’s wide rates of self medication. So we’ve got an initial base of science that says medical marijuana helps with PTSD symptoms, also helps with sleep, helps with anxiety, helps with many symptoms of PTSD, but then we have wide reports that veterans are using it. They’re finding relief. They’re telling us themselves, and even though that’s only anecdotal, how do you deny a veteran who has served this country — we’ve asked these men and women to serve — and then when they come home, we deny them the medicine that works best for them. It’s unconscionable. So we’ve been advocating strongly for that.
California is, again, unique, because it has a list of conditions that qualify for [medical] marijuana, but it also has a provision in the law where the doctor can recommend [medical] marijuana for any condition for which he or she thinks marijuana will provide relief. So PTSD falls in there. Only a handful of other states — New Mexico, Delaware — actually specifically list PTSD. Some of the other medical marijuana states, they’re sitting on their hands, they’re saying, “Oh, we need more science,” where it’s like, no, we really don’t. And then meanwhile, they’re prescribing all these other drugs off-label — benzodiazapines, other anti-depressant drugs that have lethal interactions with opioids. And so veterans, even after surviving the battlefield, they’re coming home and falling victim to a preventable overdose. It’s shameful.
This is an issue really, really close to our hearts. All the states that have medical marijuana now should change their laws. And more states need to adopt sensible, compassionate use medical marijuana policies so that veterans and all people who are suffering from serious medical conditions can get the medicine that works best for them.
The VA is starting to change. In those states where it’s legal, they’re no longer punishing those people for testing positive for marijuana. It would punish them by depriving them of pain medication, opioids and the like. So it’s like, you’re not allowing them to use the one medicine that works and then you’re depriving them of another medicine — that’s just inhumane. So now they’ve changed their policy for people in the 18 states that have medical marijuana. But for everybody else, they’re still screwed.
Raw Story: There’s often a reluctance among pundits and reporters to talk about these issues for fear of being seen as a pothead. How do you combat that stereotype where if you have any interest in marijuana policy then you’re “admitting” to marijuana use, which itself can be stigmatizing?
Rosenfeld: Well, there’s two different things. When we’re talking about medical marijuana, there’s more support there because more people know, or are starting at least to see, people who use medical marijuana. And it’s been shown that people who know people that use medical marijuana are more likely to support safe access and legal regulation of medical marijuana.
Robelo: It constantly comes up, people are like, “Do you use marijuana?” And it’s like, we’re talking about what is the best policy for this country, for this state, what does what I do have anything to do with it? So there’s still that. But it really is changing. We were talking about more politicians admitting to having used it, more famous people down the line — from artists and musicians who you’d expect to have used marijuana. But the reality is that 40 percent of the country will admit to having at least tried it at some point in their life. And that number continues to increase. So the stigma, at least around marijuana, is starting to evaporate.
And it’s also a generational question. There won’t be as many snickers and giggles around this question when subsequent generations come to and assume power in this country. Really, it’s changing very rapidly.
Also, it’s a serious issue, with the racial disparities in marijuana arrests and marijuana enforcement in this country, with the violence associated with it — the federal government says it’s the number one source of revenue for drug trafficking organizations wreaking so much violence in Mexico and Central America and other places, other experts says it’s number two, but it’s a hell of a lot of money.
So when you’ve ex-presidents and Nobel laureates and sitting heads of state and the Organization of American States which just released a report saying we need to put all options on the table and that includes regulating marijuana, the Global Commission on Drugs, which includes some of these former presidents also ex-Secretary General of the UN Kofi Annan, Richard Branson, business leaders, George Schultz, the former secretary of everything, Secretary of State and several other cabinet positions, Paul Volcker, the former head of the Federal Reserve… You’ve got serious people saying, “This makes no sense,” then I think it’s not a laughing matter. People are taking it as a really serious issue.
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