Smoking While Black
WRITER JEFF IHAZA DISSECTS WHAT'S REALLY AT STAKE WHEN PEOPLE OF COLOR GET HIGH
One of President Obama’s more unsung goals over the past eight years has been repairing the damage done by America’s deeply flawed criminal justice system. Just before Christmas, the President commuted the sentences of 96 inmates serving decades-long prison terms for nonviolent, drug-related crimes. And in March, he commuted the sentences of 61 more, a third of whom were serving life sentences. Since launching his clemency initiative in 2014, Obama has commuted more sentences than the six presidents that preceded him combined–348 counting the 48 that were granted clemency this June. Still, America’s drug policy, the impetus for generations of minorities entering the criminal justice system, remains a shadowy remnant of this country’s racist past.
The war on drugs was born from a shameful tendency of villainizing the existence of black and brown peoples. In 1914, The New York Times published an article titled "Negro Cocaine Fiends Are a New Southern Menace" and not long after, the Journal of the American Medical Association published an editorial lamenting the rise of "drug-crazed, sex-mad negroes." By 1915, the country had rallied behind The Harrison Narcotics Act, which took measures to criminalize and curtail drug consumption. Those early American views of drug use set the tone for decades of drug legislation based on fear of communities of color. That logic was present when President Ronald Reagan eventually declared an all out "war" on drugs. In his 1986 "Living Room Chat" with America, the then President’s stance seemed awfully vitriolic, describing drug users as outsiders hell-bent on corrupting "our" children.
The framing of drug legislation as protection from some existential threat born inside inner cities allowed for a merciless culture of shaming, ostracizing, and imprisoning drug users from low income, minority-rich communities. Nevermind the fact that crack cocaine, the drug fought most heavily in the ’80s, was merely a different (and cheaper) form of cocaine—a popular drug amongst white people–the tough legislation and police crackdown on drug users did nothing to curb drug use of it. Instead, a new dynamic emerged that justified further economic and racial stratification: the belief that drug users, and thus the communities most affected by drugs, were at fault for their own demise. This played out most perniciously in America’s schools, where students became criminalized for drug infractions and a new justification for segregation conveniently came to the forefront.
I went to a suburban high school in Texas that took its zero tolerance drug policy very seriously–in some cases, and in others, more like a guide than a hard and fast rule. For our school, maintaining a facade of safety meant removing students who "obviously" seemed to pose a threat to our learning environment. This often translated to an uneven distribution of punishment with the bulk of the suspensions and expulsions landing on students of color–who more likely than not lived in one of the two middle to low income neighborhoods zoned to the school. It was a dynamic that seemed fixed in how the world worked for me: I wasn’t supposed to be there and the slightest mistake would give "them" a reason to call me on it. When I smoked weed for the first time, in an empty construction site adjacent to my high school, I thought about a black student I’d seen get arrested for having a pipe in his backpack. I convinced myself that since I was in so many Advanced Placement classes they wouldn’t look at me like those black kids. Then, as the THC hit, I realized it didn’t matter.
I immediately became a fan of smoking, but always felt overly cautious. I was the paranoid kid in the back of the car who swore he heard sirens and would spray heavy cologne to mask the smell in public. It’s not hard to imagine weed becoming a gateway drug in that context. If I know I’ll get no leniency for a pipe in my backpack, why not go all out? Which is what plenty of students of color at my school did, creating a terrible revolving door of arrests and run-ins with the law that seemed entirely unnecessary. The "baddest" kid in my high school gained his reputation in eighth grade when teachers found him smoking a joint in the park and had him sent to juvenile hall. For all of my white friends, the stakes never seemed as high. Getting caught for them didn’t mean certain destruction, in most cases their parents were able to sort things out with the court. We have an almost ageless tradition for American teens: experimenting with drugs, filtered through vastly different understandings. For one group, weed is light fun, a thing you laugh off to your parents as an adult. For another, it’s the reason you’ll never see your children graduate.
As a teenager, Texas’ sprawling highways were the backdrop to most of my friend’s encounters with police. There, on the open road, you travel in and out of spheres of police control, hoping to find an unpatrolled stretch of road between where you are and where you want to go. My first encounter with law enforcement was on a highway running through the suburbs of Houston. I was in a car with a stoned contingency of friends, who were all white, and we were noshing on cheap fast food tacos when the dread of police sirens struck. The cop, a burly rookie officer who looked like he was eager for some action, had us step out of the car. He proceeded to get in each of our faces asking why us we were shaking. I was visiting home from college and the only thought on my mind was if I’d be let back in school after getting arrested. When the cop came to me, he said I looked familiar and asked if I’d met him before; apparently he’d arrested a kid like me just a week prior. It was then, during my wholly inappropriate interrogation, that my friend mustered up the courage to ask what we were being held for. Left with little to stand on (we had smoked all of our weed hours prior), the cop angrily waved us off and I immediately felt ill.
I couldn’t smoke for some time after that encounter because I became paranoid at the thought of even buying weed. It’s not hard to imagine a drastically different interaction if we weren’t driving through affluent suburbia, or if the demographic makeup of our car skewed black. Even though marijuana is at least partially legal in a number of U.S. states, smoking never feels entirely safe. For African-Americans, the sense that "they" can find any reason to lock us up is as alive and well as ever. When you’re black smoking weed gives you, in one puff, the full breadth of America’s institutional racism.