As Connecticut lawmakers consider police reform and accountability legislation in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, they should join several other states around the country in recognizing that our antiquated drug policies play an instrumental role in the over-policing of communities of color.
Since President Nixon launched the “War on Drugs,” which was later explained by a top adviser as a pretext to enable government to harass and arrest Black Americans and anti-Vietnam War activists, enforcement of cannabis laws has been staggeringly unequal. According to the FBI, there were 663,367 marijuana arrests or citations in the U.S. in 2018, and 92 percent of these arrests were for marijuana possession alone. That same year, Connecticut arrested 1,788 people for marijuana possession. Within these numbers, wide racial disparities exist. According to a 2020 ACLU report, between 2010 and 2018, Blacks were four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession in Connecticut, despite virtually identical rates of marijuana use.
In 2011, Connecticut “decriminalized” marijuana, reducing the penalty for less than half an ounce to a $150 civil fine. This reform has saved thousands from the trauma of incarceration and the stigma of a criminal record, but it does nothing to reduce unequal stops, searches, and citations. We know that traffic stop interactions can lead to violence and even death for Black Americans. Only legalization – not decriminalization – will dramatically reduce the number of unnecessary police-civilian interactions that target Black and Brown communities.
Meanwhile, at a time when hundreds of thousands of Connecticut residents are newly unemployed, a $150 fine can prevent individuals from making rent, putting food on the table, or keeping the lights on.
We have also witnessed cannabis-consumption-as-justification used in civil rights tragedies across the nation. The police officer who killed Philando Castile claimed the smell of burnt marijuana made him fear for his life. Before the grand jury, prosecutors argued Michael Brown was aggressive due to the presence of cannabis, after he was shot and killed by an officer. And, after George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, the presence of a minimal amount of marijuana in Martin’s system was raised in his trial to smear his character.
Furthermore, a quarter of all deadly “no-knock” drug raids involved cannabis during a seven-year period according to The Washington Post. Those killed include James Wescott, who had only 0.2 grams in his possession, and Henry Magee who had 12 plants in his home – both African American men. All of these lost lives represent intolerable crimes under a system that has weaponized cannabis against people of color.
Data have shown that legalization has significantly reduced the number of searches and arrests in states that have legalized among people of all races. In the first two legalization states – Colorado and Washington – there have been dramatic decreases in traffic searches, which are disproportionately performed on cars with Black or Latino drivers.
But, nearly a decade after Connecticut decriminalized cannabis possession, and as compared to other states in the region and throughout the country, Connecticut has a low decriminalization threshold and relatively high fines. Most other decriminalization states – including New York and Rhode Island – have at least a one-ounce limit. The fine is $50 in New York. Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, Maine, and Vermont, possession and cultivation is legal for adults. New Jersey voters are expected to legalize marijuana at the polls in November, meaning Connecticut’s policies will soon be even more out of step with those of our neighbors.
Even southern states that have historically punished drug offenses harshly are beginning to recognize that marijuana policy reform is necessary to advance racial and criminal justice. Virginia’s law to decriminalize one ounce of marijuana with a $25 fine instead of jail time recently went into effect. The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus is also pushing for legalization in a special session in August. In Georgia, lawmakers proposed marijuana decriminalization as part of a broader policing reform bill.
By legalizing even just one ounce of marijuana, Connecticut could bring its marijuana laws in line with the region, eliminate the number one pretext for stopping Black and Brown people, reduce the burden on our overwhelmed criminal justice system, and reduce the harm inflicted on communities of color by the failed war on drugs.
At the onset of the COVID public health emergency, Gov. Lamont declared medical marijuana businesses as essential. At the same time, Connecticut law enforcement continue to put themselves and civilians at risk by citing and arresting individuals for marijuana. And our prisons, which are largely made up of Black and Brown residents, continue to deprive individuals of their liberty for actions that 65 percent of Connecticut voters think should be legal.
While legalizing marijuana will not alleviate all the challenges faced by communities of color, it will remove a powerful tool that has been used to harm them. Dismantling systematic racism in Connecticut can only begin in earnest when it includes reforming our marijuana policies.
DeVaughn L. Ward, a New Haven resident, is the Senior Legislative Counsel for the Marijuana Policy Project.