Yes! Magazine: Next Week Oregon, Alaska, and D.C. Vote on Recreational Pot—And It's About More Than Just Getting High

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Next Week Oregon, Alaska, and D.C. Vote on Recreational Pot—And It’s About More Than Just Getting High

If those three measures pass, more states will be added to the list of places where healing from the drug war can begin, places where people will no longer face jail time because of a little nugget in their pockets.

Yessenia Funes | October 31, 2014

Crossing Fourth Avenue South on a trendy block in Seattle’s industrial SoDo district this summer, I couldn’t miss Cannabis City, Seattle’s first and, at the time, only recreational marijuana shop. On the days when the store was stocked with leafy product, no one could miss it. The line of eager customers outside the building stretched all the way into the parking lot of the neighboring sandwich shop.

As a reporter, I skipped the line and strolled right in—after showing my ID. “Geez, you’re a baby,” the doorman said, reminding me of my recent induction to the world of legal booze and now—in Colorado and Washington at least—legal buds.

Inside, glass water pipes and bongs decorated the walls and sat high on shelves. The real treat, however, was below them inside glass cases: opaque black bags full of green buds.

Brianna Jones, 22, traveled from California just to purchase some, her first experience legally buying weed. She bought a gram of Sweet Lafayette and a green Pulsar 7, a dry-herb vaporizer.

“It feels kind of historic in a strange way,” Jones said, comparing the moment to the years after the prohibition of alcohol was lifted in 1933. She wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Canadians crossed the border to experience the moment, and Jones saw an old-timer join the crowd with the help of his cane.

“For him to just leave his home, stand in line, and wait—that’s huge,” she said.

For people in New York, where I grew up, purchasing legal marijuana remains a dream. But it could become a reality for residents of Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, D.C. Next week, voters there will decide whether to legalize recreational pot. That’s exciting because, as a Latina, I know how marijuana prohibition disproportionately affects people of color, especially at home where black New Yorkers are about four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white New Yorkers.

If these three measures pass, more states will be added to the list of places where healing from the drug war can begin, places where people will no longer face jail time because of a little nugget in their pocket.

What marijuana injustice looks like

Shapriece Townsend left his grandmother’s house in Brooklyn, New York, one October night in 2012, headed to the shelter where he was staying. He was rushing to make curfew when an unmarked vehicle sped up and cut him off on the sidewalk, pushing him up against a fence. Two officers, one a sergeant, jumped out.

“You fit the description,” the officers said.

“What description?” Townsend responded.

The police said a robbery had just occurred in the neighborhood and that Townsend looked like the suspect: a black male wearing a hoodie. He denied stealing anything, but the officers didn’t stop there.

“Do you have anything you’re not supposed to have?”

After searching Townsend, the officers discovered $5 worth of pot in his pockets, about a quarter of a gram. Townsend was arrested and sent to Brooklyn Central Booking Jail to spend the next three days, including his 19th birthday, behind bars.

“There was no room to sleep, a bunch of roaches crawling around,” Townsend says. “It was just disgusting.”

Under New York state law, possession of less than 25 grams of marijuana should get you a fine—not an arrest. But possession becomes a class B misdemeanor and can result in an arrest if the herb is “open to public view” or burning.

When police stop and frisk people or tell them to empty their pockets, marijuana goes from being in their personal possession to being in open to public view, says Alyssa Aguilera, political director of Voices of Community Advocates & Leaders, a grassroots organization in New York state dedicated to serving low-income people impacted by the drug war, HIV/AIDS, and mass incarceration.

Townsend’s three nights in jail caused him to lose his job, the result of a stop and frisk. Last year, 191,558 stops were made, and 85 percent of those targeted were black or Latino, according to data the New York Civil Liberties Union compiled from the New York Police Department database.

Police officers were given the right to stop and frisk in the 1968 U.S. Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio, but it’s supposed to apply only if the suspect is believed to be armed, not if the individual is merely suspected of carrying marijuana. Only 2 percent of frisks in 2012 revealed a weapon, according to the NYCLU.

As for marijuana arrests? Marijuana possession offenses are the top arrest category for the entire stop and frisk program, totaling 5,307 arrests in 2012—including Townsend’s.

The whole state’s per capita marijuana arrest rate is high: 535 per 100,000 residents. The District of Columbia alone is worse than New York state: It experienced 846 marijuana possession arrests per 100,000 residents—3.3 times greater than the national rate. New York will hit No. 1 if the ballot measure passes in D.C.

Alaska’s not doing too hot, either. Seventy-five percent of its juvenile drug arrests were for marijuana between 2000 and 2011.

This could change very soon though. The majority of Alaskans support legalizing. A recent survey showed 55 percent believe marijuana should be legalized with regulation similar to alcohol, as the bill’s name, Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Alaska, suggests. As for our nation’s great capital? It legalized medical marijuana in 2011 and decriminalized the herb earlier this year. So, hey, you never know.

Read more here.

Blog, Civil Rights, Drug Policy, Media Coverage

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