MLK & Marijuana: How the Civil Rights Leader’s Work Informs the Push for Legal Pot

Martin Luther King Jr. might have turned 91 years old this month if he had not been felled by an assassin’s bullet on April 4, 1968. It is, of course, impossible to know what the United States would look like today if he had lived — or what he would think about the political dilemmas of our own time.

Yet there are certain obvious parallels between his time and ours. The country is again bitterly divided along political lines. And many activists and scholars argue that the racist power structure that King fought has re-congealed — this time in the guise of the “war on drugs” and mass incarceration. His legacy therefore holds lessons for those now fighting for cannabis legalization.

Cycles of Repression and Revolution  

Foremost among those scholars is Michelle Alexander, author of the 2010 bestseller The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Alexander takes a long view of the struggle for racial justice in the United States and paints a grim picture. She illustrates how many of the gains that King won in his life being reversed after his death — this time in a new “race-neutral” guise that only serves to mask continued institutionalized racism.  

Alexander notes that in 1972, there were under 350,000 people in prisons and jails nationwide. Today there are 2 million. In fact, the U.S. has the most people behind bars of any nation on Earth, in both per capita and absolute terms. This is certainly an irony for the country that touts itself as the “land of the free.” 

Among those 2 million people in prison are 40,000 who remain incarcerated in state or federal prisons on cannabis-related convictions — about half of them for marijuana offenses alone. When those waiting to see a judge in local jails are added in, the figure may approach 100,000 on any given day. And the racial disparity could not be more obvious. A 2013 American Civil Liberties Union report, Marijuana in Black and White: Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests, crunched the national data. It found that black people are more than three times as likely as whites to be arrested for cannabis — despite consuming the plant at essentially similar rates.  

And this is not the first time the country has seen significant and hard-won racial progress being in large part (at least) reversed, with the same power structure re-establishing itself in new guise. Slavery was abolished in the aftermath of the Civil War. But, as Alexander quotes historian and early civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois, from his 1935 book Black Reconstruction in America, “The slave went free, stood a brief moment in the sun, then moved back again toward slavery.”

In the South under occupation by Union troops after the Civil War, black people for the first time voted, served on juries and held elected office — until the backlash came. In 1877, the federal troops were withdrawn. In subsequent years, without federal interference, Ku Klux Klan terror enforced legal apartheid in the southern states — the system known as Jim Crow. Blacks were often reduced to a state of near-slavery through share-cropping and were barred from the vote by systematic disenfranchisement.  

It wasn’t until nearly a century after the Civil War that this system would be challenged. In his book Why We Can’t Wait, an account of the 1963 Birmingham Campaign to desegregate Alabama’s biggest city, King wrote of “America’s third revolution — the Negro Revolution.” 

By King’s reckoning, the country’s first revolution had been the one we actually call “the Revolution” — the War of Independence, although it left the slave-owning aristocracy of the South thoroughly in place. The second was arguably far more revolutionary — the Civil War, in which the slave system was broken. King’s Civil Rights Movement was avowedly nonviolent, but it was still a revolution — the overturning of a power structure by physical as well as moral opposition.

Despite the violent backlash, both from the police and Ku Klux Klan terrorists, the campaign ultimately swayed the nation, resulting in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other landmark legislation that finally ended legal apartheid in America.

But the year of King’s assassination saw the country’s national political establishment embracing the backlash — exactly as in 1877. In the 1968 presidential campaign, Republican candidate Richard Nixon first adopted the rhetoric of a “war on drugs” (although he would actually coin that phrase three years later, when the Controlled Substances Act was passed). And, in just barely coded terms, Nixon was promoting the rhetoric of racism.

In her book, Alexander quotes Nixon’s special counsel John Ehrlichman explicitly summing up the campaign strategy in his 1982 memoir, Witness To Power: The Nixon Years: “We’ll go after the racists.” Ehrlichman unabashedly wrote how throughout the 1968 race, “subliminal appeal to the anti-black voter was always present in Nixon’s statements and speeches.” 

Alexander did not mention, however, another quote attributed to Ehrlichman in which he just as explicitly made the connection between this subliminal racism and the anti-drug drumbeat. Journalist Dan Baum in the April 2016 edition of Harper’s recalls a quote he says he got from a 1994 interview with Ehrlichman: “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people… by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

And the backlash was just beginning.

Birth of the New Jim Crow 

The new order would be consolidated over the next decade. In 1973, the same year the federal Drug Enforcement Administration was created, New York state’s Rockefeller Laws imposed the nation’s first mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. In 1977, New York decriminalized cannabis, overturning the harsh Rockefeller Laws where personal quantities of marijuana were concerned — but the draconian provisions for cocaine and heroin remained intact.

With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the “drug war” rhetoric was revived with a vengeance, and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 imposed mandatory minimum sentences nationwide. Ten years later, an ACLU report would find that the law “devastated African American and low-income communities.” 

The 1986 law also instated the sentencing disparity for crack and powder cocaine — with the prior, that was flooding black communities, landing the far longer sentences. This was also reflected in public perceptions and media portrayals. In the early ’80s, powder cocaine was a status symbol for white yuppies. When crack hit the streets from New York to Los Angeles, it was immediately stigmatized by association with the criminal (read: black) underclass.

This period also saw the rapid militarization of police forces, and the War on Drugs, in Alexander’s words, went “from being a political slogan to an actual war.” The 1981 Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act started to erode the firewall that had existed between the armed forces and police since the end of Reconstruction.

The DEA joined with local police forces to instate Operation Pipeline, a program of traffic stops and vehicle searches that was protested by the ACLU as based on systematic “racial profiling.” 

This was enabled by a series of bad Supreme Court decisions — Terry vs Ohio in 1968, Florida vs. Bostick in 1991, Ohio vs. Robinette in 1996 — that dramatically eroded the Fourth Amendment. Alexander writes that these decisions enabled “consent searches” — in which the motorist (or pedestrian, or home resident) verbally consents to the search, but actually does so under police intimidation.

All-white juries were more likely to convict black people, of course — and prosecutors were still able to strike non-whites from serving as jurors despite the 1986 Supreme Court decision Batson v. Kentuckywhich barred discrimination on the basis of race in jury selection. As Alexander writes, “the only thing that has changed is that prosecutors must come up with a race-neutral excuse for the strikes.” 

In a vicious cycle, mass incarceration itself served to entrench the system of mass incarceration. Convicted felons are excluded from juries in many states, and only Maine and Vermont allow prison inmates to vote (as most Western European countries do).

Nor did this system turn around when the Democrats returned to the White House. The Bill Clinton years saw a 60% drop in federal spending on public housing, and a 170% boost in prison spending up to $19 billion. Prison construction would finally begin leveling off in the 2000s, but the actual prison population broke new records in 2008, “with no end in sight.”

Alexander writes: “Ninety percent of those admitted to prison for drug offenses in many states were black or Latino, yet the mass incarceration of communities of color was explained in race-neutral terms, an adaptation to the needs and demands of the current political climate. The New Jim Crow was born.” 

And this was utterly out of proportion to any real threat posed by illegal drugs. In the 1980s, there were some 22,000 drunk driving deaths per year, among 100,000 alcohol-related deaths. In Alexander’s words: “The number of deaths related to all illegal drugs combined was tiny compared to the number of deaths caused by drunk driving.”

Among the numberless stories of police terror in the name of drug enforcement, one recounted by Alexander is that of Alberta Spruill — a 57-year-old Harlem woman who died of a heart attack in May 2003 after police officers broke down her door and threw a concussion grenade into her apartment. No drugs or any contraband were found in the apartment. The cops were acting on a bad tip from snitches snared on a marijuana rap. 

A Fourth Revolution? 

Thanks in large part to growing public consciousness, there certainly appears to have been some progress in the fight against the War on Drugs over the past decade. In 2009, following a hard-fought activist campaign, the Rockefeller Laws were finally overturned in New York. Eleven states have now legalized cannabis, and nearly all have at least some kind of provision for medical use of cannabis — significantly lifting the pressure on one federally controlled substance.

But even amid the progress, there are clear and frustrating signs that a mere change in the law isn’t enough. From New York City (where cannabis arrests have been de-emphasized by policy) to Colorado (where cannabis is now legal), overall arrests for pot are significantly reduced — but the stark racial disparity persists in those arrests that continue under various loopholes.

Michelle Alexander concludes with a litany of necessary legal reforms and then states that, ultimately, they are insufficient: “Mandatory drug sentencing laws must be rescinded. Marijuana ought to be legalized (and perhaps other drugs as well)… The list could go on, of course, but the point has been made. The central question for racial justice advocates is this: are we serious about ending the system of control, or not?” 

She quotes from Martin Luther King’s book of collected speeches, A Testament of Hope“White America must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society. The comfortable, the entrenched, the privileged cannot continue to tremble at the prospect of change in the status quo.”

There are many other quotes from the great civil rights leader that shed equal light on the current impasse, in which the limitations of mere legal progress are becoming clear. In his April 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail, King justified his civil disobedience in these words: “An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself.”

This recalls both the relative impunity for white coke-snorters in the ’80s as black communities were militarized in the name of drug enforcement — and the white entrepreneurs now disproportionately getting rich off legal cannabis, while black users remain disproportionately criminalized.  

In Why We Can’t Wait, King wrote of how the country needed a “Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged” — anticipating the current demands for drug war reparations, wedding legal cannabis to addressing the harms caused by prohibition and the related matrix of social injustice.

The notion that cannabis legalization is necessary but not sufficient recalls King’s 1967 report to the staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the main coordinating body of the civil rights campaign. 

In the “Report to SCLC Staff,” he noted how the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March culminated in passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year — a critical victory. Yet, he wrote: “We have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights, an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society. We have been in a reform movement… But after Selma and the voting rights bill, we moved into a new era, which must be the era of revolution. We must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power.”

If cannabis legalization is to truly undo the social harms of prohibition, its advocates may be in for a similar reckoning in the coming period.

TELL US, what are you doing to fight the War on Drugs?

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