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Brockport criminal justice professor crusades for cannabis

by Tori Martinez - Managing Editor
Tue, Nov 28th 2017 09:00 pm

As of 2016, the U.S. Census reported that black people make up 13.3 percent of the United States population while white people make up 79.6 percent, numbers that have stayed relatively constant for decades. This means that there are five times as many white people in the U.S. than there are black people. Yet according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “despite the fact that marijuana is used at comparable rates by whites and blacks, state and local governments have aggressively enforced marijuana laws selectively against black people and communities.” 

The ACLU is one of many organizations that is bringing attention to what it believes is a major problem in the United States, known as “the war on drugs.” 

This issue is one of the major reasons Ingrid McGuffog, Ph.D., a College at Brockport criminal justice professor, began doing research on student opinions about the legalization of marijuana, including a student-opinion survey available exclusively to Brokckport students. 

McGuffog began her research after a Brockport student reached out to her and asked if she had done any research on marijuana, since one of her areas of study is drug policy. The inequality of how different racial groups are treated when arrested and charged for drug use or possession, combined with the student’s interest on the subject, is what led McGuffog to piece the survey together. According to McGuffog, research has shown that public opinion is a significant factor in policy change and getting responses from young people, the people who are more likely than others to be harmfully affected by the war on drugs, is vital in the fight against the war.

Former President Richard Nixon first coined the phrase “war on drugs” in 1971 when he gave a speech about drug abuse. While Nixon declared a war on drugs, calling drug abuse “public enemy number one,” one of his top aides, John Ehrlichman, later said, “You want to know what this was really all about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

In a June 2013 report, the ACLU explained that in 2010, the black arrest rate for marijuana was 716 per 100,000 people, whereas the white arrest rate was only 192 per 100,000 people. This shows that on average, black people are three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than white people. 

“These glaring racial disparities in marijuana arrests are not a northern or southern phenomenon, nor a rural or urban phenomenon, but rather a national one,” the ACLU reported. “They exist regardless of whether blacks make up 50 percent or 5 percent of a county’s overall population. The racial disparities in marijuana arrest rates are ubiquitous; the differences can be found only in their degrees of severity.”

McGuffog’s survey was originally to be completed by the end of last spring semester, where she and her student would then present their findings at the American Society of Criminology meeting in Philadelphia this past mid-November. However, she had other involvements in the meeting, and has decided to keep the survey open until spring break next semester to allow men and students of color more time to take the survey. As of now, about 60 percent of the respondents are female, 13 percent are black or African American, with a small percentage of Latinx students and an even smaller number of Asians. McGuffog said that while she appreciates that the respondents’ percentages are representative of the nation’s populations, she wants to oversample black students, since black men in particular are the most likely to be affected.

McGuffog explained that when it comes to creating and upholding drug laws, there are four policy pillars: law enforcement, treatment, education and harm reduction. The U.S. puts an emphasis on law enforcement, which means making arrests and charging people for nonviolent drug crimes. McGuffog believes this is an issue because only a small percentage of people have a problem with drug use.

“I know the vast majority of students probably smoke weed, and it’s actually normal for young people — it’s part of their identity, like when they drink. It’s part of just growing up,” McGuffog said. “But the danger is that they’re at risk for being criminalized because of a behavior that’s kind of normal.”

Instead of law enforcement, she believes the U.S. should take the treatment and harm reduction approach.

“This issue of drug addiction and drug abuse is a health issue,” McGuffog said. “It should not be a criminal justice issue.”

Although the Trump administration is not in favor of making any changes that will help end the war on drugs, McGuffog reassures us that change is not hopeless. 

“A tiny proportion of the criminal justice system is controlled by the federal government,” McGuffog said. “The vast majority of what goes on in policy happens at the state level. So even though we’ve got a federal government that’s kind of hostile to real change, voters need to know that there’s still a possibility to make a change through their local government.”

The survey takes about 15 minutes to complete, and consists of about 50 scale-based questions that ask to which degree you agree or disagree with what’s being asked. McGuffog urges students to take the survey because, like voting, it’s another way to make your voice count and be part of something bigger. 

To access the survey, visit tinyurl.com/brockport-drug-opinions.

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