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.

61 thoughts on “THE UNDERSTANDING”

  • Agree with everything and one only add my own 2 shekels — it's interesting how when my fellow white people talk about drug use in college we use the rhetoric of "exploration" and "exploring boundaries" and "seeking enlightenment."

    When a black kid or even a working class white kid with no hopes of getting a college degree is discussed, it instantly becomes a discussion about "urban blight" or "rural meth madness" or a "tragic downward spiral" or what have you.

    Legalizing pot is the right thing to do but, like you, I don't care for it myself so it'll never be front-and-center issue for me.

    Still, the War on Drugs fucked us all as a a country well and good.

  • I'm surprised he didn't have you incarcerated for calling into question his name and honor as both judge and gentleman.

  • moderateindy says:

    Also one of the reasons that black guys get arrested more for dope, particularly the sale, is that the areas where open air drug dealing is most prevalent are heavily African American. With the drugs being sold openly, and obviously, it doesn't take any real police work to bust them. So, it's not all about racism, there's also a good dash of plain old laziness thrown in as well. And of course, once arrested there is little chance of adequate legal representation, which is why folks from the burbs with cash go to jail at such a reduced rate if they do ever get busted.
    I must say though, that I know a lot of folks that get high, but not many that are stoned most of the time like you describe. Once past their mid 20's most people I know slowed down considerably. That includes all the Deadheads I know, and I know lots of them. Most recreational users I know, even the hardcore users only get stoned after work, and usually after the kids are down for the night.

  • Just another feature of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. If you keep oppressing all the working people equally, they start to gain more consciousness of their plight and start to rebel. Divide them against one another by giving a few groups some privileges, and you can dupe some of them into thinking they have common interest with the rulers.

  • The term "racist" is so vague and poorly defined. If we suppose your hypothesis is true, then you're a racist for not dobbing in all your white-skinned pals who do drugs; Make those whites respect the law, Ed! Fuckin' Whites.

  • No, the term racism is not "vague" and poorly "defined." No somebody is not a racist for not purposely turning in every white drug user they see.

    Some people have problems discussing their privilege.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    And the extra-added benefit is, if someone is convicted of a drug felony (hint – probably not someone from the lighter side of crayons in the Ol' Crayola box), in many states, they lose their right to vote – permanently.

    So, our idiotic and expensive "War on Drugs," has also been the most highly effective voter suppression tool, since poll taxes and literacy tests

    He'll never do it, but imagine the outrage (make that, APOPLEXY!!! Head, go BOOOOOOOOM!!!!!) from our Reich-wingers, if President Obama, in one of his last acts as President before leaving office, decided to issue pardon's to everyone on a massive list of people, black and white, who had felony drug convictions in all 50 states who had served their time, and returned their right to vote to them.

  • @CU: let's not forget how DD reminded us about privatised prisons. With a contractually obligated occupancy rate. So not only is it an effective voter suppression tool, it's a convenient way to easily siphon money out of public coffers into private hands.

  • grumpygradstudent says:

    The jargony terms I've seen from criminologists to describe this are differential involvement and differential enforcement.

    While I would love to be able to chalk up the vast disparity in black and white incarceration to differential enforcement alone, the criminologists I've read (e.g., Bruce Western over at Harvard) will tell you that it's mostly differential involvement. In other words, people from racial minority backgrounds commit more crimes. Since I know much less about this than people who spend their lives studying it, I've decided to defer to the criminologists on this issue.

    You're probably right about the drug offenses in particular being a case of differential enforcement, but it doesn't explain differences in violent crime and property crime convictions.

  • I was firmly in the "not a bug, a feature" camp. I figured this wasn't by design, but was a happy accident that was kept.

    But, if c u n d gulag is right, then maybe it *is* by design. [But boy was that a gamble, since it could backfire in the specific…]

  • Arslan, "racism" is certainly vague enough that no law in any nation acknowledges it. I've only ever seen it rendered as "Racial Discrimination", and even that comes with some wildly varying epsilons.

    Are you suggesting I'm uncomfortable with the privilege (another dumb word, incidentally) that, if I'm caught breaking the law, it's expected that I'll face harsher penalties than Whites? I'm comfortable discussing anything; Don't project.

  • Benny Lava says:

    There is a good book on this subject called The New Jim Crow. Goes into details on this thesis and demonstrates quite clearly that it is public policy to incarcerate young black men into appalling prisons.

    It is from this that the mass of unmarried mothers in the ghetto with "baby daddies" stems as well. Supply and demand, you know.

  • I was actually in high school when Ronnie and company rolled out the "War on Drugs", and i have to say that the local authorities were pretty well intentioned. We got a variety of speakers, including a recovering addict from the local halfway house, and a woman who started off her talk with "My brother choked to death on his vomit because he didn't think $20 of heroin would stretch to two hits." (Memo to self: stay the fuck away from heroin.)

    Of course, what happened in practice was that all these shiny new law-enforcement tools got into the hands of ingrained racists. And we shouldn't really act surprised when they used them for their own ends, should we? When the Imperial Wizard stops in to buy some lumber, five nails, and a gallon of kerosene, you already know what his evening's plans are.

  • ConcernedCitizen says:

    Benny already beat me to it, but I have to re-mention: have you been reading The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander? Because her book follows those lines to a tee. Plus, she expertly explains the Reagan era kick-off of the drug war and the series of Supreme Court decisions (which are never mentioned) that legalized discriminatory police practices in the 80s. Excellent read.

  • Tom, so it's not racist unless the laws specifically say "This racist law is intended for the following purposes:" in the introduction to the bill? Wow. If I meet you and punch you in the nose, be aware that it didn't actually happen because I did not first challenge your honor.

    The prison system is designed to take genrally-unemployable minorities from urban areas and have otherwise-unemployable whites from rural areas pointlessly watch them as they all get progressively less-employable. Also, those good rural jobs are getting privatized because THE MARKET DEMANDS IT. No more pensions for you, state workers. The future is here, and you're fucked!

  • Ed,

    Thank you for the wonderful column today, you have restored my faith in humanity. I had never realized that so many people were under the influence of marijuana so often. I feel much better now.

    Prior to reading today column that thought that all of these people were simply fucking idiots.

  • @grumpygradstudent

    Differential involvement ceteris paribus? Do you have any links? I had a little google for Bruce Western's work, but didn't uncover anything such that you have described above. (There were a squillion hits, and I didn't have long to look.)


    There are a whole range of laws and international instruments that can broadly be framed as 'anti-racist'. (Some very specifically with the word 'racism' in the title, like Bolivia's fairly wide-ranging law.) They provide remedy to individuals (or classes) who have been discriminated against in employment, or in the provisions of goods, facilities, or services. They prevent the dissemination of racist materials, whether specifically proscribed texts and articles (e.g. Nazi literature and paraphenalia), more broadly, or narrowly in terms of utterances likely to incite racial hatred. They criminalise hate crimes, by treating them as a special offense or aggravating another criminal offense. They mandate authorities to act to mitigate institutional racism, and to bring about equality and good relations between different race communities. They require states (nations, and sub-national regions) to bring about the progressive realisation of human rights for black and minority ethnic people.

    The laws fail, much of the time, and no one can pretend that justice is being delivered. However, I'm not sure what else an anti-racist law could look like?

  • I smoke a LOT of pot. Didn't use to, but then I didn't use to be on SSDI for AIDS and severe depression either. It does bother me that Obama can joke about heading the Choom Gang back in college and still approve the DOJ busting dispensaries.

  • Your post is a good reason why we need piss testing for all politicians.

    The War on Drugs will never end because there is too much money to be made on both sides.

  • @wetcasements Not to pick on you specifically, but since your comment was at the top, doesn't your argument vis. legalization boil down to "since institutionalized bias doesn't affect me personally, it ain't my problem"? Isn't it functionally the same as being complicit in upholding a discriminatory system to say "it'll never be front-and-center issue for me"?

  • And still I see no changes. Can't a brother get a little peace?
    There's war on the streets and the war in the Middle East.
    Instead of war on poverty, they got a war on drugs so the police can bother me.

  • "The New Jim Crow" by Michelle Alexander should be required reading for anyone interested in learning the true nature of the justice system and the prison industrial complex. This is essentially the crux of her argument.

  • grumpygradstudent says:

    You mean controlling for things poverty rate? I'm not sure what you're asking.

    I'm not sure if I have any open access sources, but I'll dig around and post some later today if i can find some.

  • I'm an accountant who definitely fits in to the 'stoned most of the time' category. Here's the best example of institutional racism, IMHO. Ask your perma-stoned white collarites like myself what they think of drug dealers, and after mentally picturing 'The Wire' most will think of them as low-lifes and criminals. Which is funny, because if no drug dealers than no drugs. Then with a straight face they'll support decriminalization laws 'for less than an ounce'. You know, because drug dealers are unsavory.

  • @grumpygradstudent

    I'm getting the distinct sense that criminology was an unreflectively white supremacist discipline in the 1960s, when a wedge of the work cited in that summary appears to have been written. The more recent work seems to support what was my instinctive guess, that being ghettoized, discriminated against, impoverished, immiserated, criminalised, and otherwise oppressed makes you less likely to be law-abiding. Of course, it would help if more of the analysis viewed the issue of criminality with a race lens.

  • Exactly, Negative 1. There are people I know who must keep a whole drug-lord henchman's children in shoes with their post-dinner party 'refreshments', who will not flinch before suggesting that programmes to support drug misusers be cut, or that sentences for drug dealers are too short.

  • grumpygradstudent says:

    Oh yes, the question of WHY folks from racial minority backgrounds commit more crimes is a completely different question. I like Elijah Anderson's book called The Code of the Street, and David Kennedy's book Don't Shoot, and Sudhir Venkatesh's book Gang Leader for a Day. Those all have some good insights into that question.

  • I might argue that, pace the fascinating book "Albion's Seed", that some of the cultural attributes blamed by racists on "the blacks" can be tied directly to the rather nasty cultural baggage drug over from Merry England by The Cavaliers and The Borderers. The slave masters and their willing dupes in the white Southern rural working class TAUGHT their culture too well, including the over emphasis on "honor", the hyper-religiosity, and the violence.


    I might also argue that the claim that minorities "commit more crimes" is based on a rather facile acceptance of what "crime" really is. The wealthy, well-connected elites who run the United States are directly to blame for hundreds of thousands of deaths in the Middle East over the past decade and are slobbering, no slavering, for more "interventions". sadly, this is a bigger impact on the world than the local drive by, yet the war mongers and promoters of "aggressive foreign policy" are promoted and listened to and paid huge sinecures to spread their drivel.

    The bank fraudsters and gamblers who looted the economy have a somewhat bigger impact on society, no, than the corner hood holding up a 7-11, yet they are "too big to fail" and are let off with a wrist slap.

    So, grumpyblinddad….why should we accept your characterization of the problem when you miss the bigger picture?

  • How can it be a completely different question? The explanations of differential involvement and differential enforcement are themselves underpinned by broader theories of criminal behaviour.

    I thought "Gang Leader for a Day" was like a lengthy Boys Own Adventure, and I kept getting jerked out of the text by imagining his supervisor slapping him stupid. Elijah Anderson's piece in The Atlantic put me off his book, because I didn't come to it until after I'd been very distantly involved in a project on rape and gangs, and it seemed ungendered to an almost retrograde degree. I don't know if it's a function of all of this crime pop-anthro being written by men who got way too into The Wire, but the experiences of women and girls really don't seem to be reported on or analysed very well.

  • "Arslan, "racism" is certainly vague enough that no law in any nation acknowledges it."

    So if people don't explicitly write things in laws, they are too vague and don't mean anything?

    "I've only ever seen it rendered as "Racial Discrimination", and even that comes with some wildly varying epsilons."

    There's a concrete definition for you, and a good one at that.

  • grumpygradstudent says:

    Well, clearly we don't agree. I thought Gang Leader for a Day was a good picture of life in a public housing project and the economics of gangs. I thought Anderson's piece was a good explanation of how structural constraints (segregation and lack of policing) lead to a self-enforced culture of respect, which in turns leads to violence. And I think Kennedy's piece is a good bit of myth busting about how gangs actually work.

    And I don't actually think that "who commits more of which types of crimes, blacks, whites, or latinos?" is a question that requires the invocation of post-structuralist theories. But people can make up their own mind about that. There's plenty of literature and statistics to review in the article I linked to above.

  • A very good source for info on dope, it's users and its legalization is Mark Kleiman's The Reality-based Community. Note that the Southern Strategy and the war on drugs came about at more or less the same time. I taught at Indiana U for a long time…not a whole lot of blacks there, and a lot a white kids got busted and sent up for big time for dope offenses. This is not to argue against your basic point, but the cops need a black population to fuck over and in its absence they will fuck over anybody. The people who don't get fucked over and who commit the biggest crimes of my lifetime are the big money boys who rip us all off, walk away with billions and get handshakes and smiles from all their enablers in the government.

  • @grumpygradstudent

    Oh, I've critiqued the gender chops of people with far more impressive CVs than that. It's possibly to be the most garlanded authority on race and crime, and not bring a gendered analysis at all.

    I think you've misunderstood my point about The Wire. I disliked Anderson's Atlantic piece on its merits, but I think that that show, Simon's two books, and the plethora of articles that followed in their wake have constrained possible gendering of the public discourse about crime. Women and girls were invisibilised in Simon's show, in part because he can't write them very well. As he said in an interview, “I tend to suspect that my female characters are, to quote a famous criticism of Hemingway, men with tits.”

  • grumpygradstudent says:

    Well, if you refuse to take seriously any work that doesn't explicitly address your pet issue, that's your business. I don't criticize Outback Steakhouse for having bad hot fudge sundaes.

  • grumpygradstudent says:

    In other words, I don't think something has to explicitly address gender to have something useful to say about the world.

  • It's not that I don't take it seriously, it's that I find it limited. The notion that research that purports to encompass humans should include the female humans as well as the male humans is a 'pet issue' is kind of the problem.

  • grumpygradstudent says:

    Yeah, but not every work of research can investigate every important on every important question! That's ridiculous.

  • grumpygradstudent says:

    Yeah, but not every work of research can investigate every important angle on every important question! That's ridiculous.

  • grumpygradstudent says:

    Here's a 300 page book about the day-to-day life of Baltimore city homicide police. But why wasn't a 500 page book about gender politics in the police department? Well, because that wasn't what it was about! Feel free to write your own book about that.

  • You seem to be struggling with this a little, so here's an example. Anderson's piece in The Atlantic describes domestic violence as a 'self-destructive' behaviour on the part of women, on a par with crack addiction or alcoholism. A gendered analyis, informed by contemporary theorising about domestic abuse, wouldn't have produced a completely inadequate statement like that. Anderson's thoughts about the experience of children, and their experience of violence, would doubtless have been enriched by the application of a gendered lens.

  • Big dog. Good point.

    case in point…we are arguing here about federal drug law and differential enforcement. If one REALLY wants to talk about differential enforcement, let's talk about the wrist slap against HSBC, which the United States Government, in collision with the UK, decided was too important to prosecute despite glaring and repeated examples of money laundering for drug smugglers AND SAUDI TERRORISTS. Keep the last point in mind when the FBI is reading your emails or you are being invasively scanned at the airport. The people facilitating and enabling terrorism and the drug trade are completely untouchable.

  • Just as a quick (serious) query and not to side track.
    I'm curious as to how CO and WA new laws are different to "Nullification"? Ie why we on the Left get up in arms with Red States passing laws to counter Fed (as yet non-existent) laws for background checks. But legalising pot, that's cool.

    I feel I'm missing some important legal nuance here.


  • Andrew Laurence says:

    I'm 47 and used to eat pot-laced edibles every week or two until recently. I stopped because (in no particular order):

    1. My wife does not partake and doesn't like it much when I do.
    2. Every time I eat a caramel, I stay high for 12 hours, sometimes so ridiculously high I can barely find my ass with my own hands. I don't have time for that shit.
    3. Every time I eat a caramel, I become horribly dehydrated. I can drink water, Gatorade, fruit juice, doesn't matter. I feel like the desert. It's miserable.

    All of these are rather unfortunate, because caramels cost about $1.65 and make my brain feel FANTASTIC. My cat is softer, my wife is prettier, jokes are funnier, and all is generally right with the world. Try duplicating that with booze or yoga!

    Also, black people are 400% more likely to get arrested for weed than white people? What's 400% of zero?

  • @xynzee. Good point, but the same holds for marriage equality. It may be the only way to make things happen on the federal level, but the knives come out when candidates can be accused of being soft on crime, regardless of how harmless the " crime," so most likely no action on marijuana will take place in Congress.

  • @grumpygradstudent,

    "…drug offenders make up about 20% of the currently incarcerated population."

    But if you add the gang violence associated with drugs, the non gang violence associated with drugs, the rates of theft and larceny and robbery and so forth associated with paying for drugs, you get a lot more than that 20% that are JUST there for drugs. And those lower-level criminals are generally poor, more likely to be overrepresented by minorities, and so forth. The War on Drugs has created all the problems of a black market, while most of the problems are avoided by those who just stop by to spend money they have (think middle class whites) to pay for their drug habits. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy to say the War on Drugs will create an environment where a War on Drugs will become seen as necessary.

    Cocaine grows in the same environments as coffee. Pot is called "weed" because of the immense difficulty it has in its cultivation, obviously. And poppies can be grown in gardens everywhere. Meanwhile, cigarettes and alcohol are just harmless substances with important Senators and Representatives representing them.

  • The War on Drugs and the issue of self-medicating mental illness and the high cost of prescription drugs and racial and class disparities in law enforcement all lead to the situation where we are today: a lot of people who just need to get high to forget themselves are unable to do so because of the law, many can and avoid legal problems, and many can do so legally. In other words, a clusterfuck for poor and minority people who feel a need to escape reality.

  • Every day you encounter far more people stoned out of their heads on "legal" drugs, so what's the difference?

  • Like many of you, I am a moderate user and have been for fifty years. Being high on dope while quite different from alcohol has similarities in the varying degrees of highness. You can get through a busy and productive afternoon after a beer (or maybe two) for lunch, but after three Martinis, forget about the afternoon. A mellow high is great for certain kinds of work. Carl Sagan said in an interview that for the most part he worked moderately high. I would not call myself a heavy user, being high from sunset to sundown. Kleiman claims that about twenty percent are heavy users. These people may be doing themselves some harm, but most likely the dope isn't leading them to harm anyone else. I think it's somewhat hyperbolic to assert that some great number of us are walking around stoned, no more than those who are drunk…maybe less.

  • Thanks Elle. It's amazing how defensive people get when you point out that the work of some so-called great thinker is flawed because it doesn't consider gender. It's also incredible that some people think that it is a pet issue. I guess paying attention to even a second perspective is too hard for some people.

  • I think there are two reasons why 4 times more blacks are arrested for marijuana use than whites:

    1. There is an inherent racist quality among most members of law enforcement. I found this out when I thought I had one of the more rational subset of LEOs as a client. The more time I had to spend around this person, the more deeply biased he appeared against racial and ethnic minorities.

    2. I think that blacks and whites use marijuana in different ways. For whites, it appears to be more therapeutic–a more pleasant replacement to Valium or alcohol–with fewer ill effects. Taking tranquilizers isn't generally a social event for whites. For blacks, it appears to be used more in a social context–e.g.: clubs, parties, informal social events. This may also account in part for the greater number of people arrested.

  • HoosierPoli says:

    Is it not common knowledge that the Nixon tapes revealed Nixons explicitly racial motivations behind the war on drugs?

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