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End the Double Standard: Yes on Prop. 19

James Gilliam,
ACLU of Southern California
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October 29, 2010

With the election less than a week away, I keep finding myself in discussions about the ACLU’s support for Proposition 19 — a proposition on California’s November ballot that would allow adults 21 and older to possess and grow small amounts of marijuana for their personal use and allow cities and counties to tax and regulate commercial sales. When I explain that part of our support of Prop. 19 is rooted in our desire to end the disparate impact marijuana laws have on African-Americans and Latinos, people suggest that the recent passage of S.B. 1449 in California — which reduced simple possession of marijuana from a misdemeanor to an infraction — should squelch our concerns about the impact the failed war on drugs has had on communities of color. As a result, time and again I’m asked whether S.B. 1449 makes Prop. 19 unnecessary.

Unfortunately for the African-Americans and Latinos who are most affected by the unbalanced enforcement of our drug laws, this simply isn’t so. And even the No on Prop. 19 campaign agrees. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to moderate a debate at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles between Stephen Gutwillig, the California State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) who argued in support of Prop. 19, and John Redman, a representative of No on 19. When I asked Mr. Redman whether S.B. 1449 would end the disparate impact marijuana laws have on people of color, he admitted it would not.

That’s because there’s no evidence that changing the crime of marijuana possession from a misdemeanor to an infraction will change the double standard of enforcement that so negatively impacts people of color. In fact, S.B. 1449 makes it even easier for officers to ensnare young African-Americans and Latinos in the criminal justice system disproportionately by issuing citations to them. The drug laws so unfairly impact Latinos — as outlined in a new report just released by the DPA and the William C. Velasquez Institute — that the National Latino Officer’s Association announced this week that it has endorsed Prop. 19.

When we visit the polls next week, Californians have an opportunity to dismantle the status quo — an environment in which African-Americans and Latinos are disproportionately arrested for low-level marijuana possession even though their usage rates are the same as or lower than those of whites. A vote against Prop. 19 is a vote for continuing the failed policies of the past. Our future deserves better.

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