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End prohibition: Mencken, marijuana, and me

Yesterday, the Justice Department finally announced that it would not prosecute individuals in states that have legalized marijuana or sue the states to reverse their laws. During Maryland's last largely successful legislative term, where gay marriage and the Dream act were passed and the death penalty repealed, our officials let us down on marijuana policy. We passed the most restrictive medical marijuana bill in the country and failed to vote on bills that would either reduce possession of small amounts to a merely ticketable offense and another, introduced by Delegate Curt Anderson, that would legalize marijuana for recreational purposes.

Now that the federal government has removed the most obvious excuse not to legalize, we must call things as they are and say that, if the Maryland legislature fails to end prohibition, it is as a result either of cowardice or sadism, as H.L. Mencken, the freest mind in the Free State, put it of the last Prohibition (I will quote him at length).

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I was first arrested for smoking weed at the age of 17, in the extremely puritanical state of South Carolina, where I was arrested twice more for possession. I was pulled over weekly and called a hippy and a fag because I had long hair. Since then, I have earned a PhD, taught college, taught high school, published a book, run two political campaigns, and worked at this newspaper. And yet I have remained an outlaw. I have not trusted my government nor its officials. No one who ever smoked pot was shocked when it was discovered that the NSA was surveilling U.S. citizens: we always assumed we were being watched, listened to, and monitored.

But the fact is, though I remained an outlaw, I was able to do the things listed above, largely, because I was white. Had I been black and arrested three times for weed, I could be in a far worse situation today. In fact, the ACLU released a study this year that ranked Baltimore fifth among large jurisdictions for marijuana possession arrests--and over 90 percent of those arrested were African American. The arrest rates for blacks had increased by 20 percent while the arrest rate of white tokers had decreased by the same amount. The Sun rightly calls it "Maryland's New Jim Crow."  In light of this evidence, and without a Federal excuse, it would be criminal for Maryland's legislature not to vote on a bill to decriminalize weed. Of course, it is not only African Americans that suffer because of this insane and unjustified prohibition--when injustice is perpetrated in our name, we all suffer. Our state cannot call itself the Free State with a straight face while men and women are imprisoned because they ingest an herb that affects their consciousness. Mencken would be disgusted, and so should we be.

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