On this day of remembrance of the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., many news outlets will provide highlights or even the full text of his landmark 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech at the Nation’s Capital. It is a remarkable oration of a man dedicated to the most American of principles – that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights that include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Yet even as Dr. King’s four little children and all black children live this day in a nation where they are increasingly not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, they suffer much of the same discrimination, incarceration, disenfranchisement, and terrorism Dr. King fought to rid this country of five decades ago. Only this time the judgment is not overtly by the color of their skin, but by the functional racism of our drug law enforcement.
The statistics show how our drug law enforcement is maintaining a “Jim Crow”-like status for black people. In California, a black person is ten times more likely to be imprisoned for a marijuana offense than a white person. In Florida, almost one in five black men can’t vote because of felony convictions, often because three-quarters of an ounce of pot is a felony there. In New York, nine out of ten people busted for misdemeanor marijuana possession are black or Latino. (For a full treatise on this subject, please read Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow”.)
However, we mustn’t confuse equality with justice in our drug laws. Lately, the demographics of our drug war has shifted toward imprisoning more whites by proportion, but the problem isn’t that we lock up too many black and Latino people for using drugs, it is that we lock up any people for using drugs, period. That our drug laws are used disproportionately against the poor and the powerless only reflects their nature as tools of oppression. In order for all to be treated equally, we must all be treated justly.
For we live in a nation where making the choice that provides you a livable life can cost you your precious liberty. In two-thirds of these United States a jail cell awaits for the patients using marijuana as medicine just to alleviate suffering or debilitation. Even in the sixteen states that have medical marijuana laws, patients using marijuana as medicine face a virtual “No Medical Marijuana Patients” sign in many “Help Wanted” ads, hotels, and apartment listings just as surely as Dr. King saw “Whites Only” signs in those places half a century ago. In most of the 16 states, these citizens are required to register with the government annually and pay a fee to avoid arrest and forfeit of their belongings. For this privilege they must adhere to restrictions no other medicine is subject to. (For examples, an Oregon patient seen by a cop smoking a joint on the beach has violated the “no public view” provision of the medical marijuana law, loses protection of the card, and the 29-gram bag of weed in his pocket is now a class B felony worthy of a possible 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. A Montana patient who visits Washington has no protection from arrest. A California patient caught at Yosemite National Park by a federal ranger will be arrested.)
We live in a nation where, in any state, those who are blessed with good health can lose their liberty if they make the choice to pursue happiness by using marijuana . In the workplace and at school citizens are frequently judged not by the content of their character, but by the content of their urine. On the highways and byways our citizens are not even judged for their character by a human’s mind, but by the content of aroma in a dog’s nose. Careers are ruined, families are shattered, and lives are forever altered in a disgusting, quixotic attempt to enforce morality.
This assault on liberty is made more revolting by its contrast to the accepted drugs in this nation. Movie franchises and television sitcoms celebrate the glories of alcohol excess, paid for by the advertisements of more alcohol and the “good” drugs, pharmaceutical medications. No student or employee fears discrimination, expulsion, or termination for their use of pharmaceuticals and alcohol, so long as they are of legal age or have legal prescription and their use didn’t affect their work. However, the even the valedictorian and the Employee of the Year can be out on the streets if their urine shows evidence of marijuana use, regardless if it was smoked last night or last weekend.
In his speech, Dr. King spoke of “the fierce urgency of now.” Fifteen years ago, we began chiseling away at the wall of ignorance that is our nation’s drug laws with California’s Prop 215, legalizing the use of marijuana as medicine under a doctor’s supervision. As hopeful as that day was and as many people as it has helped, it has provided too little justice to too few people. Like Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation, Prop 215 brought us the beginning of justice, but it did not bring justice. It has left us with but one out of twenty-five gaining only the illusion of justice and a system of Jim Crow second-class citizenship that gets more restrictive with each new state that enacts a medical marijuana law.
Yet many in our movement who claim to fight for justice believe this medical marijuana system is the path to the equality for the cannabis consumer. They fight to expand the definition of “medical” to be so broad as to cover anyone who chooses to use cannabis for personal reasons. I believe this is a mistake. This is like the light-skinned black who’s favored to work in the master’s house telling the darker field slaves to just bleach their skin so they can escape the master’s backbreaking cotton fields and enjoy the relative luxury of working the master’s kitchen and the laundry. The antidote to oppression is not a kinder, gentler oppression; the antidote is freedom.
In the recent months we’ve seen an increased assault by the federal government against the states with medical marijuana laws. Activists fighting for justice in our drug laws are furious and ready to fight back. But as Dr. King spoke of another oppressed group ready to fight back, “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” And I believe, for too many in our ranks, medical marijuana has become that tranquilizing drug or gradualism. I’m told that this state or that state isn’t ready for legalization of marijuana and they are accepting of medical marijuana. And I reply, “Who’s job is it to get that state ready? If those of us who believe in justice and equality for all cannabis consumers are willing to compromise that belief for the sake of political expediency, why should the oppressor take our belief seriously?”
“Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy,” Dr. King said, “[n]ow is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”
So I have a dream, too, if I may paraphrase Dr. King. I have a dream that one day in Virginia the sons of marijuana smugglers and the sons of DEA agents can sit down together with the bong of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state Florida, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed with vast fields of industrial hemp. I have a dream that in Oklahoma, with its vicious laws, with its governor having her pen signing laws that punish hash with life imprisonment; one day right there in Oklahoma, beer drinkers and cigarette smokers and marijuana tokers can all be trusted to use their substances responsibly like adults.
And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!
Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!
But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all cannabis consumers, black men and white men, patients and potheads, Rastas and atheists, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Peter Tosh song, “Legalize it. Don’t criticize it!”