In 1995, I was a 19-year-old college student on spring break. I was a member of the basketball team with my sights set on the NBA, and a friend of many on-campus – basketball players, football players, black, white and everyone in between.
Like many other college students, my friends and I saw spring break as an opportunity to get out of town and let loose. A group of us loaded in a car and drove from Athens to Houston, where one of my friends on the football team was from; four black males, including myself, and a white female.
We spent the day in Houston, having fun and hanging out, doing the things typical college kids do. After a late-night stop at a tattoo parlor, we decided to head back to Athens.
Exhausted from the day’s events, the three members of the football team and I fell asleep in the car, while our female friend drove back toward Athens. Suddenly, I woke up to the flash of red and blue lights, and the panicked voice of our female friend. We were being pulled over.
Upon approaching the vehicle, the officer noticed the faint smell of marijuana. He proceeded to search the car and found a small, clear baggie of marijuana – about 2 grams. The officer demanded to know who the weed belonged to, and of course, none of us guys were taking the blame because it genuinely was not ours. If I’m being truthful, we had already smoked all of ours before leaving Houston.
With no one willing to fess up, and our white female friend unwilling to be honest about it belonging to her, the officer stated, “well, we’re not going to blame the white girl.” You can guess what happened next. I carry that marijuana possession charge on my record to this day. I knew nothing of the marijuana in the car, but because I was black, I was hand-picked by the officer to have to carry this scarlet letter forever.
My story is just one of the millions of black men who are routinely hunted and mistreated by those who are meant to project and serve. My story is just one of the millions of black men who have experienced racial disparity when it comes to marijuana arrests.
This year, the American Civil Liberties Union reported that black people are 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite marijuana usage rates being comparable between black and white people. And, while 3.64 is the average, in some states, we are six, eight, and sometimes even ten times more likely to be arrested.
Black people are 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite marijuana usage rates being comparable.
What’s led us to this place is a long and problematic history of the treatment of black people in the United States of America. While at face-value, the writing of the 13th amendment in 1865 is something to be celebrated, it left a large and problematic loophole that truly didn’t free us at all: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction” (History.com, 2020). This exception clause is what has fueled the rise of our modern prison system, a system which incarcerates black people five times more than white people, and profits off underpaid and unpaid labor. In other words, slavery isn’t dead; it’s just taking place in prisons instead of in cotton fields.
While it is a fact that blacks and whites use drugs at similar rates, black people are six times more likely to be imprisoned for drug charges (NAACP, 2020). In addition, 40% of the incarcerated population in American prisons is black, despite this group only making up less than 13% of the general population (PrisonerHealth.Org, 2020).
It sickens to me to my core that black men have a 1 in 3 chance of going to jail in their lifetime, compared to 1 in 17 whites. Despite my successful career and the financial freedom and privilege I was afforded for being able to shoot a basketball and jump high, I am one of these statistics.
As we watch the tides of racial justice and equality beginning to turn with the recent arrest of the Amaud Arbery’s killers and the murder of George Floyd, I believe it is also time for us to call on the United States of America to decriminalize drug possession.
For the sake of the next generation of black men and women, it is time to shift our focus from punishing people for drug possession to healing our communities. It is time to redirect the billions of dollars spent on law enforcement resources that arrest and terrorize black people into building healthier communities. If our nation ever has a chance of healing, we must be not only anti-racist in our everyday encounters, but also anti-racist in reforming the construction of our society which has oppressed Black people for hundreds of years.
Criminal Justice Fact Sheet. (n.d.). Retrieved June 02, 2020, from https://www.naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet/
Editors. (2009, November 09). 13th Amendment. Retrieved June 04, 2020, from https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/thirteenth-amendment
Karimi, F., Cooper, A., & Andone, D. (n.d.). Former Minneapolis police officers charged in George Floyd … Retrieved June 4, 2020, from https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/04/us/george-floyd-thursday/index.html
McLaughlin, E. (2020, June 04). Ahmaud Arbery was hit with a truck before he died, and his killer allegedly used a racial slur, investigator testifies. Retrieved June 04, 2020, from https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/04/us/mcmichaels-hearing-ahmaud-arbery/index.html
Police and Corrections Expenditures. (2020, June 03). Retrieved June 02, 2020, from https://www.urban.org/policy-centers/cross-center-initiatives/state-and-local-finance-initiative/state-and-local-backgrounders/police-and-corrections-expenditures
Race and Incarceration. (2020). Retrieved June 02, 2020, from https://www.prisonerhealth.org/educational-resources/factsheets-2/race-and-incarceration/