NAACP Backs Marijuana Federalism


The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) recently endorsed a bill that would make the federal ban on marijuana inapplicable to people who grow, possess, or distribute cannabis in compliance with state law. H.R. 1523, the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act of 2013, would essentially repeal (or at least limit) federal pot prohibition in the 21 states that allow medical or recreational use of the drug. So far the bill, which was introduced by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), has 20 cosponsors, including five more Republicans: Justin Amash (Mich.), Dan Benishek (Mich.), Don Young (Alaska), Duncan Hunter (Calif.), and Steve Stockman (Texas). 

The NAACP resolution endorsing H.R. 1523, which was adopted by its board of directors at a meeting last month, notes that "even though numerous studies demonstrate that whites and African Americans use and sell marijuana at relatively the same rates, studies also demonstrate that African Americans are, on average, almost 4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, and in some jurisdictions Blacks are 30 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites." The NAACP, which in recent years has highlighted the racially disproportionate impact of marijuana prohibition and condemned the war on drugs, last year supported the successful legalization initiatives in Colorado and Washington, so it's not surprising that the organization wants the feds to step back and let those experiments proceed. But Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority, argues that the NAACP's willingness to stand up for state's rights is significant given the group's history of battling segregationists who (erroneously) waved that banner:

For obvious historical reasons, many civil rights leaders who agree with us about the harms of marijuana prohibition still remain reluctant to see the states chart their own courses out of the failed "war on drugs." Having the NAACP's support for a states' rights approach to marijuana reform is going to have a huge impact and will provide comfort and cover to politicians and prominent people who want to see prohibition end but who are a little skittish about states getting too far ahead of the feds on this issue. 

As I've argued in Reason, there is nothing inherently right-wing about the Constitution's division of powers between the states and the federal government. Properly understood, federalism was never a license for violating rights protected by the 14th Amendment, and today it can profitably be employed by progressives to further their own causes. Ending the war on drugs should be at the top of the list.