THE UNDERSTANDING

Posted in Rants on June 4th, 2013 by Ed

As I do not smoke marijuana, one thing it took me a long, long time to realize as an adult is that a significant portion of the population is high, like, all the goddamn time. Everybody is aware, at least vaguely, that if you drug tested a random college classroom or a restaurant kitchen, pretty much everyone would fail. But it goes beyond the lazy stereotypes. I know personally people like doctors, lawyers, elected officials, teachers, architects, and accountants (in addition to the waiters, musicians, bartenders, comedians, and people of leisure) for whom not being high is an extreme rarity. In the broadest sense, I am acquainted with hundreds of users – and probably more people who I don't realize are users.

This bothers me not at all, since I give zero shits about whether people smoke weed. What does strike me as odd, though, is that for all the (predominantly white) people I know who use regularly, I know very few people who get arrested for anything drug related. Perhaps that is because, despite surveys showing that nearly identical percentages of black and white Americans use marijuana, new data shows that blacks are 400% more likely to get arrested for marijuana-related offenses. You're shocked, I know.

Notice that this does not say blacks are four times as likely to use marijuana, or be in possession of it, or sell it, or anything of the sort. They are four times more likely to be arrested and charged. The reason, I submit, is that the entire point of the War on Drugs is to put black males in prison. This isn't a bug; it's a feature.

In practical terms, there isn't one reason why this happens. There are many. Police patrol more in black neighborhoods. They pull over more black drivers. They conduct more vehicles searches of black drivers during traffic stops. There is more drug enforcement (locker searches, etc) in predominantly black schools. Once arrested, blacks are more likely to be convicted and to receive harsher sentences for the same crimes. And, as the linked article emphasizes, performance metrics based on quantity encourage police to target simple offenses like possession.

A few weeks ago, a judge in an Illinois county near St. Louis died of a cocaine overdose on a hunting trip with other judges. This is a perfect snapshot of the relationship among drugs, the American public, and law enforcement. Tons of people use drugs across all socioeconomic levels, and the laws exist to punish…well, poor blacks and Latinos, basically. The image of a couple of judges who probably sentence people on drug-related crimes regularly sitting around and doing blow in a cabin in the woods speaks for itself. See, the laws are for Those People, not for Us. Statistically, the police don't seem to mind too much if judges and lawyers get high. Or kids in expensive private high schools (You know those drug dogs they parade around the "bad" schools? I'd love to see what they'd find when marched past the lockers of Northern Virginia's various academies and Country Day schools). Or college kids. Or people who live in nice houses in the suburbs. Or basically anyone, with the exception of black people and particularly young black males. Sure, the dumbass white kids from the suburbs can spend all of mom and dad's money on blow and bad acid and expensive weed for four years in college, but if there's weed to be found in the crappy black neighborhood they'll move heaven and Earth to find it. Ethan might be selling his mom's Vicodin out of their 4000 square-foot home in Barrington, but the crime is Curtis selling dimebags behind the convenience store.

This. This is what institutionalized racism is. It is a system that is designed from stem to stern to do one thing as efficiently and as thoroughly as possible: arrest and incarcerate poor people in general and the dark-skinned ones in particular. From the police officer on the street to the judge in the highest courtroom, the entire system operates under the wink-and-nudge understanding that some people can break the drug laws with relative impunity while others must be assessed their Strikes as rapidly as possible and incarcerated for as long as the law permits.

Many years ago I went to court for a traffic ticket. The courtroom was full, and the Offenders consisted of me, a handful of Hispanic men, and about 75 black people. The area in which the offense happened was predominantly white. I told the judge that I wouldn't ask for special treatment despite apparently being the only white person in the county to commit a moving violation that month. He didn't laugh.