Hidden amid the smoke clouds of last week’s National Weed Day was a decision by the city of Atlanta to put off a vote on marijuana decriminalization. Ordinarily, local legislative procedures wouldn’t warrant much attention, but for a city once at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement, the issue has become a proxy for a broader debate about racist policing and the measures needed to change it.
The policy debate started three months ago, when two plainclothes Atlanta policemen smelled marijuana coming from the car of a young Black man named Deaundre Phillips. As documented on surveillance video, the cops proceeded to shoot and kill Deaundre on the spot, etching his name in local headlines and hashtags. Since then, activists have pressured the city’s lawmakers to soften penalties for recreational marijuana, hoping decriminalization would lower unnecessarily violent encounters with police.
Today (April 25) Atlanta’s Public Safety Committee is meeting to discuss the ordinance, setting up another possible City Council vote in the coming weeks. But in a city where more than nine in 10 marijuana arrests are of Black people—among the highest rates in the country—marijuana’s criminality (or lack thereof) may not be enough to fix racist policing.
By now, we all know that Black and White Americans smoke pot at nearly identical rates, yet smokers of color are four times more likely to get arrested for it. We also know that each arrest brings jail time, fines and lifelong effects on employment and civil rights, contributing to a criminal justice system into which every fourth Black man will enter some point in his life.
We know this, yet there are almost no examples of cities or states that have effectively stemmed the racial disparity in marijuana enforcement. In Colorado and Washington, legalization has reduced the overall number of marijuana arrests, but there’s been almost no change in racial disparity. Likewise for major localities like New York City, Philadelphia and Chicago, where decriminalization laws have done little to influence the racial divide in weed arrests.
Xochitl Bervera, head of the Racial Justice Action Center in Atlanta, still maintains that decriminalization can make police encounters like Phillips’ less frequent and less hostile. “Decriminalization makes sense because it lowers the total number of arrests and keeps Black men out of jail,” she says. “However, if you change the law but don’t change the culture of the police department, it may not be effective.”
Underpinning this reality, at least in part, is money. Large chunks of the criminal justice system are financed directly by funds collected from marijuana arrests, ranging from four-figure fines to bond payments to probation fees when the bond is too high to afford. For many cities and states, policing marijuana has become a valuable source of revenue.
“It’s a banking system built on the backs of communities of color,” says Sir Maejor Page, president of Black Lives Matter of Greater Atlanta. “[Marijuana] arrests pay for things like pensions and retirement funds, jails, courts, district attorneys and bond-collecting companies—the system sees Black people with marijuana as dollar signs.”
Beyond just a financing tool, Page and Bervera also acknowledge that weed is a gateway not to other drugs, as many critics claim, but to the criminal justice system: It’s typically one’s first (and only) encounter with police, and its criminality is often just a pretext for targeting Black people. After all, the same racially lopsided arrest rates exist for other minor offenses like jaywalking, turnstile jumping, loitering and traffic violations, suggesting that weed is merely an easy excuse for arresting people of color.
This is, of course, by design.
Marijuana was first made illegal in the U.S. when the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics convinced Congress that most marijuana smokers were “Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers” whose “Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use, which causes [W]hite women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.” Later, President Richard Nixon reaffirmed this intent when he signed the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, admitting that he wanted to link weed with Black communities. Today, these racist undercurrents are more subtle, though no less evident in practice.
Yet even with softer penalties for weed—Atlanta’s proposed ordinance would fine violators $75—there’s no guarantee that law enforcement will follow suit. Through quota systems, enforcement priorities and informal protocols, police departments may still opt to patrol marijuana harshly, rendering a new classification of the drug largely futile. That’s why it’s crucial to pair new policies with changes in how those policies are enforced.
One town near Atlanta is testing out this approach. Building on the Black Lives Matter movement and an evolving public opinion around weed, Clarkston, Georgia, recently decriminalized marijuana and worked with its police department to deprioritize its enforcement. The hope, says Mayor Ted Terry, is to safeguard all of Clarkston’s diverse communities from discrimination.
“We knew this policy disproportionately affected communities of color,” says Terry. “So after talking to our communities and police officers, we found a way to address the punitive nature of marijuana law by making it a ticketable offense rather than the life-altering burden of fines and jail time.”
At the heart of this approach is a recognition that marijuana policy is only as effective as its enforcement, and that amending a law designed to oppress demands more than semantics: It requires an honest and discerning eye toward the racial injustice it inflicts and a solution crafted deliberately to overcome it.
It’s easy to get caught up in the complicated moral, medical and legal implications around marijuana, but debating the drug on its theoretical merits ignores the more urgent reality that it has become a tactic to punish Black communities. Efforts to change marijuana policy and policing without responding to this reality are—like the lungs of those they target—just full of hot air.
Adam Lewis a Brooklyn-based writer focused on global health and social justice. He currently leads communications for a nonprofit that strengthens surgical care in the developing world, while also reporting on topics such as maternal health, social enterprise and racial and gender inequality. His work has been published in the Washington Post, The Guardian, VICE, Huffington Post, Ozy and several other outlets.