The New York Times‘s article on marijuana in California is something of a masterpiece, in that it manages to discuss the drug war for 1300 words without mentioning poor people.
We do learn that marijuana is the apéritif-du-jour among Bill Maher and Arnold Schwarzanegger’s set, but there’s nary a quotation from the disproportionately African American and Latino population that has mostly been on the receiving end of the state’s minor possession arrests. In fact, the complete list of people quoted in the article to support its thesis is as follows:
- Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom
- Governor Arnold Schwarzanegger
- Bill Maher
- State Democratic chairman John Burton
- Democratic consultant Chris Lehane
And the sites mentioned as examples of de facto legalization:
- “suburban backyards in neighborhoods from Hollywood to Topanga Canyon”
- “some homes in Beverly Hills and San Francisco”
- “the Hollywood Bowl in September or even in the much more intimate, enclosed atmosphere of the Troubadour in West Hollywood during a Mountain Goats concert”
- “places like Venice and Berkeley”
Does examining any of these people or places tell us how the underclass might be experiencing California’s supposed new relaxed approach to enforcement?
The Times has included a stray fact or two. We learn that support for legalization is strong, and that Californians are more likely to be under the influence of marijuana than alcohol when driving. But there are no actual statistics on numbers of arrests or convictions, length of sentences, and demographics of offenders, all of which appear important in assessing the validity of the claim that “marijuana has effectively been legalized in California.”
The scandal about the drug war has of course never been its effect on dinner partiers, but precisely that those people smoke freely in backyards while America’s minority populations are harassed, humiliated, beaten, shackled, fined, and imprisoned by the millions.
So the Times article really shows only the bleedingly obvious fact that influential people often get to do as they please. But also, in its suggestion that California’s scheme is optimal and its problems solved (“Let Colorado and Washington be the marijuana trailblazers. Let them struggle with the messy details of what it means to actually legalize the drug”), it offers a dangerous endorsement. A regime in which a prohibition remains on the books, with enforcement depending on police discretion (justice of the paper bagged beer and the sly wink), is especially terrifying. It sets a system up for gross abuses, because how the law will apply is determined by influence in practice rather than by statutory text. California can have its cake and eat it: television personalities won’t have to be embarrassed by pot busts, while police officers would not suffer the loss of power in their dealings with the poor that would result from complete legalization; no “messy” pressure of having to craft a fair law that applies equally to all.