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.

Be Sociable, Share!

61 Responses to “THE UNDERSTANDING”

  1. Big dog Says:

    @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.

  2. jon Says:


    "…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.

  3. jon Says:

    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.

  4. Ten Bears Says:

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

  5. Says:

    Hello, just wanted to mention, I loved this blog post. It was practical. Keep on posting!

  6. Big dog Says:

    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.

  7. Nate Says:

    @Andrew Sounds like you need to eat less potent edibles. :)

  8. Ursula Says:

    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.

  9. Ruthie Says:

    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.

  10. HoosierPoli Says:

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