Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Editor: Douglas A. Berman
Moritz College of Law

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Do (and should) marijuana reform advocates consider themselves civil rights activists like MLK?

March4-jobs-freedom-FINALPerhaps like many others today, I have been thinking about (as well as listening again to) Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famed "I Have A Dream" speech from the famous March on Washington five centuries ago.   In so doing, I noticed this posting from The Crime Report, which is headlined "50th Anniversary March on Washington Will Emphasize Criminal Justice Issues" (and has links to the full speeches of August 1963 speeches of both MLK and John Lewis). Here is an excerpt from the post:


Half a century after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famed "I Have A Dream" speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the often-parallel topics of racism and criminal justice have been thrust into the spotlight.

[Today] and on August 28 civil rights leaders will demand reforms to such racially-tinged criminal justice issues as police “Stop-and-Frisk” tactics, “Stand Your Ground” laws and mass incarceration at the Lincoln Memorial where King made his impassioned plea so many years before.

These policies, among others, have added to the increasingly heavy cost of incarceration of African-Americans effectively decimating the fabric of many communities. The numbers are startling: one in three black men can expect to be in jail during their lifetime. African-Americans are arrested at nearly six times more than whites and almost one million of the United States 2.3 million prison population are black.

But in the last month some strides have been giving leaders attending the march more urgency.

Perhaps at no time since King’s famed speech have the often-parallel topics of racism and criminal justice been so intertwined and in the spotlight. On August 12, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the "Smart on Crime" program, a sweeping initiative by the Justice Department that pivots away from decades of tough-on-crime anti-drug legislation. That same day, Judge Shira Scheindlin of U.S. Southern District Court in Manhattan, declared the New York Police Department’s use of “Stop-and-Frisk” unconstitutional. The tactic is used to search individuals — predominantly minorities — for drug paraphernalia and guns....

Among those speaking will be Congressman John Lewis, whose speech at the original March on Washington cited “the constant fear of a police state.”

"We are tired of being beat by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again,” Lewis said at the time. ...

The week of events will culminate on August 28, when President Barack Obama will give a speech in which he is expected to emphasize the “dreams” of King that remain unfulfilled.

I have long believed and long contended that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., were he still alive today, would be a vocal proponent of criminal justice reform and that he would consider such advocacy a continuation of his civil rights work.  But, as the question in the title of this post suggests, I wonder if some folks (especially those working toward ending marijuana prohibition) think that MLK would be a vocal advocate for marijauana legalization were he alive today.  In other words, do folks think it is proper or at least plausible for advocates of marijuana reform to be considered civil rights activists?

Obviously, to the extent MLK stressed the theme of freedom in his famous Dream speech, it is relatively easy for marijuana reform advocates to contend they are working in the MLK tradition when advocating for all people to be able to freely and legally use marijuana.  But, as the graphic above notes, the March on Washington 50 years ago was for jobs and freedom. When I think of my own criminal justice reform advocacy, it has a lot to do with freedom but very little to do with jobs. Marijuana reform advocates, however, often can and sometimes do speak of the job-creation possibilities of a fully legalized and regulated marijuana industry. In this way, I do think marijuana reform advocates can arguably claim to be even more in harmony with the DC marchers 50 years ago than even today's criminal justice reform advocates.

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