Drugs, incarceration and a denial of compassion

By James Clark
July 27, 2010

Two interesting things happened last week that directly affected my neighbours – those whom the biblical message enjoins me to love. First, the California Affiliates of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) endorsed Proposition 19. This is a ballot initiative to legalise recreational use of marijuana. Second, the Economist magazine published an article on mass incarceration in the United States entitled ‘Rough Justice,’ with the subheading “America locks up too many people, some for acts that should not even be criminal.”

Unrelated? I think not. The Economist revealed some startling facts: that 1 in 100 American adults is living behind bars. When we narrow the field to young black men, it’s one in nine. While the Economist article only briefly mentions drug policy and doesn’t mention marijuana at all, the ACLU has long recognised that prosecution of marijuana crimes is among the most successful vehicles of mass incarceration that unfairly targets minorities.

In 2008, California made 60,000 marijuana arrests, the majority of them young men of colour. In Los Angeles County the marijuana possession arrest rate of African Americans is more than 300 per cent higher than the same arrest rate of whites, although blacks made up less than 10 per cent of the county’s population, according to a new report from the Drug Policy Alliance. The same report also reveals that more white youth use marijuana than black youth, despite the dramatically skewed arrest rates.

Communities of faith have long led the charge when it comes to meaningful treatment for addiction, addressing the problem of drugs with counselling and proven programs for recovery that are, at their core, rooted in the value of compassion. Yet that value is conspicuously absent from the way the criminal justice system addresses the problem of drug addiction.

Even a ‘misdemeanour’ marijuana possession arrest (quite a minor one) can prevent someone from obtaining a job, a home, and even educational loans. Those basic tools for pulling one’s self out of the pit of addiction and into a sustainable healthy lifestyle – education and employment – can all be out of reach because of a few grams of marijuana. Often this leads to further drug use, crime, and ultimately incarceration.

“Love your neighbour as yourself” should not be seen as a personal virtue to be checked at the door of the county courthouse. While Christian communities provide perhaps the nation’s largest network of drug addiction programmes rooted in compassion and love, its time they advocated for public policies that align with those same values.

California’s Proposition 19 is about more than freeing up jail beds and raising tax revenue, it’s about refusing to address social problems by locking our neighbours behind bars.


© James Clark is a community organiser and graduate of Candler School of Theology at Emory University, USA.

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