SEATTLE — Last year, the Rev. Carl Livingston riled some Black ministers when he backed the campaign in Washington State to legalize and tax marijuana use among adults — a measure similar to legislation pending in the Pennsylvania State Senate.
Livingston, a political science professor, didn’t back that ballot measure for legalization because of his acceptance of pot, the substance some pastors call the ‘Devil’s Weed.’
Livingston backed Initiative 502 because of his long opposition to drug war racism that produces disproportionate arrests and imprisonment of Blacks — despite statistics consistently documenting more whites being involved with drugs.
“Marijuana is a big piece of African Americans in prison. I oppose the mass incarceration of Blacks,” Livingston said, listing negative impacts from drug arrests and convictions like denials of employment and student loans for college.
Stark racial disparities have existed in Seattle’s marijuana possession arrests. Blacks comprise three percent of Seattle’s population, yet they have in recent years accounted for upwards of 70 percent of pot possession arrests in the city famous for its annual “Hempfest” pro-pot festival that attracts tens of thousands of predominately white participants.
I-502, approved in November 2012, gained 54 percent support statewide, and 72 percent in Seattle. Washington and Colorado — where voters approved legalization last November — are the first states in America to allow adults non-medical access to marijuana.
Livingston, who teaches at Seattle Central Community College, said, “We don’t put people in prison for cigarettes and alcohol. I don’t support use of those substances. I don’t believe that marijuana should be criminalized when evidence indicates it is safer than cigarettes and alcohol.”
Blacks are 2.8 times more likely to face pot possession arrest compared to whites in Washington State, according to an extensive ACLU study released last June.
That ACLU report found Blacks are 5.2 percent more likely for pot possession arrests in Pennsylvania. In Philadelphia, during 2012, police arrested 3,052 Black adults for pot possession, compared to 629 whites, noted a Philadelphia Tribune article published last month.
Ending racially unjust marijuana law enforcement was one of the rationales behind the I-502 initiative in Washington State, stressed Kevin Oliver, director of the Washington State Chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
“One of the selling points for 502 was the fact that possession arrest rates would no longer effect the minority community,” Oliver said. “Many 502 supporters did not approve of marijuana use, but did approve of the social justice component.”
The 2nd Annual National Marijuana Business Conference took place last week at a facility about 30 miles south of Seattle. This event attracted more than 600 people from across the U.S. who are either involved or interested in the expanding multi-million dollar marijuana industry. That includes an array of activities, from growing marijuana for medical use to making edible pot-laced products, to lab testing and professional services like accounting.
One conference speaker, Alison Holcomb, the I-502 campaign director and Washington State ACLU head, asked participants to reach out to the communities that have been abused by the drug war when providing employment opportunities.
Monica Burrell, a business developer for MedMen, a California-based marijuana industry consulting firm, was one of the handful of African Americans attending that conference. Burrell urged more Blacks to move from consuming to the business sides of this growth industry.
Geoff Johnson, an African American who owns the Green Skunk medical marijuana facility in Seattle, feels retail sales of legalized marijuana, expected in 2014, will struggle with existing black market sales due to higher costs from regulation — a sentiment expressed by experts at the Marijuana Conference.
Early in his 70-year career of collecting African-American books and artifacts, noted historian Charles Blockson came across a book on the Underground Railroad that had a profound impact on him personally.
That book, written by the man who ran the principal office in Philadelphia for the Underground Railroad – William Still – contained an account of an escape from slavery by some relatives of Blockson.
“I almost started crying,” Blockson said of his reaction to reading that account when he came across Still’s famous work in a bookstore in Philadelphia. “I didn’t have the $5 to buy that book, so I asked if I could pay on installments, telling the store owner that my relatives were in the book. The owner said yes.”
Blockson, who turns 80 in December, related that encounter and many other incidents from his storied career as a collector last Friday during a program honoring him entitled, “Charles L. Blockson: Reflections on 70 Years as an African American Bibliophile & Historian.” This program was held at the Afro-American Collection bearing his name on the campus of Temple University, one of the largest such collections in the world.
“I never knew how many people would come into my life through this work,” Blockson said, recounting how he met famed Black writer/activist Langston Hughes at a bookstore in Harlem and Civil Rights Movement icon Rosa Parks, who visited Blockson’s collection at Temple.
“Book collecting has been called ‘gentle madness.’ Some people get high off pot and alcohol. I get high off books and high from providing information to people,” Blockson said.
One of the first books Blockson bought as a young man was a small copy of “The Story of Little Black Sambo” at a Salvation Army store in his hometown of Norristown, Pa. His collection of books contains works dating back to the 16th Century.
Blockson is an internationally-recognized expert on the Underground Railroad, that clandestine system which aided slaves fleeing bondage on southern plantations to freedom in the north and Canada. Blockson’s multiple accomplishments include researching and erecting state historic markers recognizing significant sites of Black history around Philadelphia and Pennsylvania.
During the program, Blockson received a citation for his decades of work from U.S. Congressman Bob Brady. Recently, Blockson donated 39 personal items of Harriet Tubman, the famed Underground Railroad conductor, to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
“The reason this collection is here today is because it is needed,” Blockson said. “This collection is not mine. It is for the people.”
Stephanie Joynes, an official in Moms For Marijuana International South Jersey chapter, attended the protest against pot prohibition last Saturday near the Liberty Bell to support pro-pot activists, who Joynes said endure intense governmental persecution.
One well-known activist supported by Joynes is Ed Forchion, the N.J. Weedman – widely considered America’s foremost Black marijuana legalization proponent.
Forchion, presently imprisoned in New Jersey on a controversial probation violation arising from a pot possession conviction, pioneered pro-pot protests at the Liberty Bell over a dozen years ago.
Another legalization activist supported by Joynes is N. A. Poe who did attend Saturday’s monthly protest, formally called “Smoke Down Prohibition X.”
But Poe, dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit with fake chains around his neck and hands, had to stay 100 feet away from the actual protest site under conditions imposed by federal authorities following his pot smoking arrest during a “Smoke Down” in May.
Local anti-pot-prohibition activists have held Smoke Downs at the Liberty Bell since last December, seeking an end to the federal law banning marijuana use.
During the first few Smoke Downs, some activists smoked marijuana without arrest. But beginning in May, federal and Philadelphia police arrested protestors smoking pot while targeting Smoke Down organizers like Poe and journalist Chris Goldstein.
During the past few monthly Smoke Downs, demonstrators have not smoked pot, instead mocking the dozens of federal and local police assembled to make arrests.
Federal prosecutors, in Poe’s case, defended increased enforcement against pro-pot activists as necessary to “protect the public.”
But opinion polls indicate strong public support for ending pot prohibition.
A Gallup poll released last week found 58 percent of Americans support marijuana legalization. A Franklin and Marshall poll released days before Poe’s May arrest found 82 percent support among Pennsylvanians for the legalization of medical marijuana.
Stephanie Joynes, a Cherry Hill resident, said she joined Moms for Marijuana in part because of opposition to the Drug War, which she says disproportionally targets Blacks. Philadelphia police arrested 3,052 Blacks in 2012 for pot possession, compared to 629 whites.
“Our young people get arrest records that make them felons,” Joynes said. “Then they can’t get jobs and access to college.”
Moms For Marijuana has chapters in 34 states and nine countries according to its website.
Activist Ed Forchion, outraged by continuous imprisonments, began pursuit of perhaps his most bodacious act to date, another attempt to formally change his name, this time seeking a name change to: Just a N——-.
“If the authorities want to treat me this way, then call me by the name that fits how you are treating me … a n——-,” Forchion said during an interview before returning to an N.J. prison two weeks ago.
Philadelphia police, in 2012, arrested 3,052 Black adults for possession of marijuana, but only 629 white adults on that same charge in a city where there is a consensus among experts that marijuana usage is equal among races if not more extensive among whites.
The racially disproportionate marijuana possession arrest data convinces City Council President Darrell Clarke that a review of Philadelphia Police Department practices is needed.
However, City Solicitor Shelly Smith, suggested that the racially skewed pot possession arrest statistics alone do not evidence prejudicial police practices.
“I don’t think the numbers in and of themselves provide enough to draw a conclusion,” Smith said. “Police target high crime areas and are most active there. You must look beyond the numbers.”
Activist/journalist Chris Goldstein has monitored marijuana possession arrest data in Philadelphia for the past seven years and it is clear to him that prejudicial enforcement plays a part in the vast racial differences in pot possession arrests.
“I can’t find any arrest disparity as great for any crime in any county in the state of Pennsylvania as marijuana possession in Philadelphia,” Goldstein said. “Across Pennsylvania more whites than Blacks are arrested for possession. Only in Philadelphia are Blacks arrested more than whites.”
Goldstein is the Communications Director for Philly NORML, the local chapter of the national pot legalization organization. Goldstein recently analyzed data from Pennsylvania’s Uniform Crime Report for 2012 that detailed Black adult arrests five times higher than whites for possessing pot with 75 percent of those Black arrests taking place within the 18-34 year old age group.
Goldstein contends that if the racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests result simply from heightened law enforcement in high crime areas there should be a similar disparity in arrests for hard drugs like cocaine and heroin. But that is not the case based on arrest data.
“When you look at arrest data for cocaine and heroin there is a closer parity in arrests,” Goldstein said. During 2012, Philadelphia police logged 2,074 arrests for whites for cocaine and heroin while police arrested 2,155 Blacks in that hard drug category according to Uniform Crime data.
Council President Clarke, in a statement released to the Philadelphia Tribune, said the arrest data “suggests a stark racial disparity in marijuana arrests in Philadelphia which raises serious questions about the City’s Stop and Frisk policy.”
A report on Mayor Nutter’s controversial Stop and Frisk policy released in March 2013 by the local ACLU found “pronounced racial disparities” in marijuana possession arrests across Philadelphia. That report, based on PPD data, found Black pot possession arrests exceeding arrests for whites in police districts where the racial make up of populations were both predominately Black and predominately white.
The disproportionate arrests for pot possession, that report stated, “are even more disturbing in light of evidence that marijuana use is actually higher among whites than Blacks.”
“Who is the criminal?” Nkosi Patrick Molala asked while making an address to a group of Temple University students, referencing the issue of crime in his homeland of South Africa.
“Is the criminal the person who steals bread to survive, or is it the person who keeps things such that a person has to steal?” Molala said.
Molala was not condoning crime, but recognizing issues arising from the vast wealth disparities existing in South Africa — the country with the world’s second highest degree of inequality in family income distribution, according to many studies.
Molala, a legendary soccer star, anti-apartheid figure and community activist in South Africa, is among many concerned about grave economic inequities in that nation like 50 percent unemployment among Black youth. Those inequities are rooted in the history of that nation once mired in white supremacist rule supported covertly and overtly by U.S. governmental and corporate structures.
Post-apartheid South Africa is a “democracy of those who can make it,” Molala said.
The formal ending of segregationist apartheid in the early 1990s resulted from negotiations between the white minority government and the ANC headed by iconic leader Nelson Mandela.
Those negotiations that ended decades of armed conflict to overthrow apartheid retained most of the existing employment and property ownership structures.
“The changes that have happened after the end of apartheid have happened to a small minority who now work in the government. Their standards of living have gone up,” Molala said while speaking at a community center located about 80-miles north of Johannesburg, the city that literally sits atop one of the world’s richest sources of gold.
Waste from the extensive gold mining under Johannesburg form man-made mountains around that city like in sections of Soweto, the fabled Black township where many still live in grinding poverty.
“Much in the ‘Rainbow Nation’ that we claim is the same as before: Those who were poor then are poor now.” Molala said.
Molala, a leader of the South African Soccer Legends organization that works to help current players and youth, holds the dubious distinction of being the first soccer star in his nation imprisoned for anti-apartheid activities. Molala served eight years on infamous Robben Island — the bleak prison that held Mandela and other leading opponents of racist rule in South Africa.
Following Molala’s release from prison in 1985, he became deputy president of AZAPO, the Azanian People’s Organization, a strident anti-apartheid entity. During one protest he lead after prison, a police tear-gas canister struck him in the face, blinding him in one eye.
Molala and other activists recognize that positive changes for the poor have occurred in South Africa since the end of apartheid, like the ANC government building over one million new houses for the poor — a unique feat in world history. But structural change has been slow — too slow for too many.
“We look at Americans and see ourselves in many years,” Molala observed. “It doesn’t look good.”