The dramatic uprising in Ferguson, MO following the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, at the hands of a white police officer has become an international news story. As in the case of Trayvon Martin’s murder in Florida by a paranoid neighborhood watch volunteer in 2012, racism has been at the forefront of the discussion and so too inevitably has been the drug war.
The images of a militarized police force in Ferguson are shocking and disturbing but, as John Oliver brilliantly points out on his comedy/news show, many police forces around the country have gotten beefed up into veritable local armies with expensive battle equipment supplied in the name of the drug war. The show includes an excerpt with The Washington Post’s Radley Balko, who has long documented police excess under drug war militarization.
Aggressively punitive and extreme drug policies are steeped in racism. Inherent in the response to drug law enforcement is a biased approach and stark double standards in the perceived threat of drug use by marginalized people. Unfair targeting and racial profiling have had a profound impact on how young black men in the U.S. are viewed and their lives valued.
From clothing to intoxicants, what is normal and innocuous in another context becomes sinister when associated with black people. Marijuana use has become increasingly normalized, so much so that the majority of Americans think the plant should be made legal and Washington and Colorado have become the first states to put this into practice.
Television shows joke about weed, our country’s president was once a marijuana enthusiast, and an entire industry is emerging around recreational marijuana. By contrast, for both Trayvon and Michael Brown, evidence of marijuana use in their toxicology reports was presented to news media to discredit their character in the wake of their murders. In fact, there is a long record of black murder victims being publicly smeared over marijuana.
Bringing up marijuana use in the context of the murder of these two young men is a blatant double standard and it is racist. What is happening in Ferguson, MO today has racism and the drug war written all over it.
Frank conversations about race at the national level are long overdue, and may be the only good things to come from these tragic situations. The drug war is a failed social experiment that leads to the disproportionate targeting, arrest, conviction and incarceration of people of color, despite overall equal rates of drug consumption for all people.
The drug war fuels the underlying thread of judgment, stigma and marginalization that permeates how we value human life and it enables acts of violence.
Sharda Sekaran is the managing director of communications for the Drug Policy Alliance.