Keith Boykin on why many Americans support legalizing pot.
I have a confession to make. I don't smoke weed.
Of course, that doesn't mean I haven't tried it. Like almost everyone I know, I've used it before. I started as a teenager, choked on the smoke a few times and gave it up. By the time I got to college, it was easier for underage kids to get a beer than a blunt. And as a college athlete and aspiring politico, I never considered marijuana an option.
Then came Amsterdam. I took a trip to the Dutch capital years ago and discovered something called space muffins. While my travel companions smoked in the cafes, I devoured an edible marijuana treat that seemed to have no discernible effect on me. I ate the first one in the shop where I bought it and then quickly purchased two more. The store clerk warned me to go slowly, but I ate the second one a few minutes later mixed with my favorite ice cream at Ben & Jerry's and the third was gone by sunset. Still no impact. While my friends walked around the city high as a kite, I was disappointed.
It finally hit me at dinner that evening. Sitting at an outdoor restaurant near Leidseplein, one of my two incredulous travel buddies spooked me. I laughed. And laughed. And laughed. It went on uncontrollably for hours. I laughed so much I fell out of bed that night in the hotel room. My bruised ego was the only casualty of our delightful daylong marijuana experience.
Since that time, I've eaten weed brownies a few times over the years here in the U.S., but I've never actually rolled a joint or smoked a blunt. My sensitive lungs just don't do well with any kind of smoke. But here's the truth. If marijuana were legal in my state, I would surely use it in edible form.
My experience is not unusual. Nearly half of all Americans in my 30-49-year-old age group have tried marijuana, according to a recent Gallup survey. Our personal experiences with the drug explain why poll after poll after poll has shown the majority of Americans now support legalizing marijuana. It's harder to demonize something when most people have first-hand knowledge about it.
Just about everyone in my age group has tried marijuana or knows someone who has, and after decades of experience and observation, no one, absolutely no one, seriously believes weed is more dangerous than the two main substances we already legalize: alcohol and tobacco.
That's why 20 states plus the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, and two of those — Colorado and Washington — have legalized it for recreational use. That's why Colorado estimates marijuana sales will generate anywhere from $57 million to $133 million in additional tax revenue this year. Even President Obama acknowledged in a recent interview that he "smoked pot as a kid" but considers marijuana just another bad habit like cigarettes or liquor. "I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol,” the president admitted.
Times are changing. Even U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has called for new rules to enable marijuana businesses to access the banking system and endorsed a bipartisan proposal to reduce prison sentences for low-level drug offenders. Just ten years ago, few public officials would have been willing to speak up on this issue, but now politicians are slowly realizing it's time to legalize marijuana.
Almost no one takes marijuana laws seriously anymore. That is, no one except the young Black and Latino men who have been disproportionately arrested and incarcerated by those outdated laws. As the American Civil Liberties Union announced in a new report updated this week, Blacks and whites use marijuana at similar rates, but Blacks are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. In fact, among 18-25-year-olds, whites use marijuana at a slightly higher rate than Blacks. But in lily white states like Iowa and Minnesota, Blacks are approximately eight times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana charges.
Forget all the many other obvious reasons why weed should be legal. This is, and always has been, a civil rights issue for African-Americans. A seemingly "minor" drug-related arrest can ruin a young person's life, especially a young Black person. It can mean loss of a job, loss of educational opportunity and denial of access to government benefits.
So while some adults can safely smoke in the comfort of our middle-class homes and smile and joke about weed, this drug is still ruining people's lives, just not in the way we used to think.
Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for BET.com each week.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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