Marijuana: Amendment 64 is a social-justice issue, says NAACP

At 10:30 a.m. today, the NAACP's Colorado/Montana/Wyoming conference will formally endorse Amendment 64, the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act. Rosemary Harris Lytle, communications director for the local branch, who's among the speakers at the event, taking place in Denver's Five Points neighborhood, says the NAACP sees the measure as a social-justice issue and much more.

"Our conference actually voted to endorse Amendment 64 at our meeting on April 21 in Pueblo," Harris Lytle says, "and since then, we've been working to educate ourselves about the so-called war on drugs before our official endorsement today.

"Why are we doing it?" she asks. "Not to fight for the perceived quote-unquote right to smoke marijuana. Instead, we're endorsing Amendment 64 because we believe that in ending the prohibition against adult use of marijuana, we might impact the mass incarceration and disproportionate impact of drug policy on communities of color in Colorado -- specifically African American and Latino communities, and even more specifically, African American men. We're convinced this is a civil-rights issue, and the right thing for the state conference to do."

Over the past several months, Harris Lytle goes on, NAACP representatives have "looked at data from the FBI. Now, we know that African Americans account for less than 4.5 percent of the population in Colorado -- but African Americans account for nearly 9 percent of marijuana possession arrests and 22 percent of arrests for marijuana sales and marijuana cultivation. And the disparity is even more obvious in Denver. African Americans account for less than 15 percent of the population in Denver, but account for more than 30 percent of marijuana arrests. So we see Amendment 64 as one way to end an unfair and damaging system of marijuana prohibition and replace it with a system in which marijuana is regulated in the same way that alcohol is regulated" -- one that allows adult use but restricts access to children.

Harris Lytle notes that the endorsement is very much in keeping with the policies of NAACP nationally. "This failed drug war is primarily waged against African Americans and Latinos. Those populations suffer the harshest consequences. People of color are much more likely to be searched, much more likely to be arrested, much more likely to be prosecuted, much more likely to be convicted, and much more likely to be incarcerated for a drug-related offense than non-African Americans or Latinos."

Continue reading about the local NAACP conference's endorsement of Amendment 64. This argument is at the center of The New Jim Crow, a book by Michelle Alexander that was central to the area NAACP conference's education process on this subject, Harris Lytle says.

Among the people of color who are disenfranchised under the current system, she maintains, are "felons and former felons, who can't get a federal student loan, who can't live in federal housing, who can't get a job because of that box that asks you whether or not you're a felon -- and we know what happens when people are forced to check that box. Right now, there are as many African American men under the control of the government -- i.e., in prison, on probation or on parole -- than were enslaved in the year 1850. And that's an egregious statistic.

"Michelle Alexander's book is a call to action for those who haven't thought about or been convinced there's a need for drug-policy reform. We tend to think of people who are incarcerated as needing to be there for public safety because they've committed serious crimes. But many people who've been incarcerated -- and this is true of Colorado, too -- are there not because of new crimes, but because of collateral consequences of past crimes, like not being able to pay a fine, or not showing up for an appointment. The system keeps cycling you through in a way that provides no open door for effective reentry into your community. That's another reason we see this as a social justice and civil rights issue."

The passage of Amendment 64 is hardly assured, Harris Lytle concedes. "I think it will take some courage and some understanding on the part of Coloradans to really look at the impact of drug policy -- to really look at the way it decimates communities here and nationwide. They need to be courageous about change.

"We need to start somewhere with that change, and we believe this is a viable place to start -- taking marijuana from the underground, where people are subject to criminal penalties and this mass incarceration we're talking about, and allow the government to regulate it, to create income from it for all of our communities, and to conceivably create jobs. It's a civil rights issue because it's a correction to what we see as a civil wrong."

The NAACP endorsement event gets underway at 10:30 a.m. today at 700 East 26th Avenue, at the intersection of 26th Avenue, Welton Street and Washington Street in Five Points. Harris Lytle will be joined on the speaker's roster by social justice advocate and NAACP member Jessie Ulibarri, Drug Policy Alliance senior policy manager Art Way and Amendent 64 advocacy director Betty Aldworth.

More from our Marijuana archive: "Marijuana: Colorado Democratic Party convention supports Amendment 64."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts