October 30, 2013
Pot Reform’s Race Problem
The fight against marijuana prohibition must put racial justice at the center.
by Carl L. Hart
Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton all acknowledge illicit marijuana use in their younger years. Of the three, who do you suppose was most at risk for arrest and all of the associated negative consequences, including truncating his political aspirations?
To most Americans, the answer is clear: the black guy, of course. For those for whom the answer is less obvious, consider a recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union showing that black people are two to over seven times more likely to be arrested for pot possession than their white counterparts, despite the fact that both groups use marijuana at similar rates. These disparities held up even when researchers controlled for household income. It’s about race, not class.
As a neuropsychopharmacologist who has spent the past fifteen years studying the neurophysiological, psychological and behavioral effects of marijuana, I find this particular effect of pot prohibition most disturbing. Each year, there are more than 700,000 marijuana arrests, which account for more than half of all drug arrests. And now, largely because of the selective targeting of African-American males, one in three black boys born today will spend time in prison if we don’t take action to end this type of discrimination. The gravity of this situation contributed to Attorney General Eric Holder’s remarks about mass incarceration, which he described as “a kind of decimation of certain communities, in particular communities of color.”
Throughout its study of marijuana, the scientific community has ignored this shameful marijuana-related effect. There are virtually no articles in the scientific literature addressing it. One possible reason is that the National Institutes of Health has not made it a priority to understand or prevent racial discrimination, even though the devastating impact of racism on health is well documented. The NIH, specifically the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), funds no less than 90 percent of the world’s research on marijuana. If that doesn’t include studies on race, then the research is not likely to be done.