Obama's Drug Warriors

Talking Points Memo's Benjy Sarlin looks at perhaps the most depressing aspect of the Obama presidency:


According to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the Judiciary Committee is planning a hearing early next year to examine federal policy towards two states that legalized marijuana in November. 

Colorado and Washington each passed ballot measures in 2012 permitting residents to enjoy the drug recreationally and setting up a system to regulate and tax its use. But there's still a cloud hanging over the pot party. Federal drug laws are still unchanged and the White House has made clear that it's not on board with legalization on any level. 

President Obama and the Justice Department are still considering their best response. Options include lawsuits to block portions of the state referenda or even federal prosecution of low-level drug offenders, a job currently left to state and local governments.

I think it's really easy to make jokes abut this sort of issue, but marijuana arrests are an actual problem in the black community. As the NAACP California chapter put it, "marijuana arrests are a civil rights issue." And an employment issue:

In the low-income and heavily black and Latino district of Central Los Angeles, for example, people given a court appearance summons were ordered to appear at the Central Arraignment Court on Bauchet Street. The defendants often did not realize that they had been charged with a crime because the summons looks like a traffic ticket. They appeared before a judge who told them they had been charged with a misdemeanor, and that if they plead guilty they would be fined up to $100. 

The judges routinely recommended defendants waive their right to a trial. The vast majority of defendants wanted to be released and put this experience behind them. They accepted the judge's recommendation and plead guilty. Most people found the money to pay the fine and court costs and gave it little thought until they applied for a job, apartment, student loan or school and were turned down because a criminal background check revealed that they had been convicted of a "drug crime." 

Twenty years ago, misdemeanor arrest and conviction records were papers kept in court storerooms and warehouses, often impossible to locate. Ten years ago they were computerized. Now they are instantly searchable on the Internet for $20 to $40 through commercial criminal-record database services. Employers, landlords, credit agencies, licensing boards for nurses and beauticians, schools, and banks now routinely search these databases for background checks on applicants. The stigma of a criminal record has created huge barriers to employment and education for hundreds of thousands of people in California.

I don't think it follows that because Obama used marijuana he should necessarily switch positions. But I would hope that it would give him some empathy. In America, Barack Obama was able to become president, despite his drug use. That is a good thing.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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