Ann Arbor is a city defined by its university, football, food and great culture. Locals and students will quickly praise and boast these features; however, a huge part of Ann Arbor less likely to headline brochures has been its progressive stance and cultural acceptance of marijuana. In fact, just this past April, Ann Arbor hosted its 46th annual Hash Bash, a clear celebration of marijuana.
Additionally, the city was at the forefront of medical marijuana legalization, making an initiative in 2004, four years prior to the state of Michigan as a whole in 2008. The city has been progressive in its drug policy, and now more than ever it is critical that the city continues to be.
On May 12, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo that instructs federal prosecutors to pursue the harshest sentences on drug-related crimes. This effectively works to reverse Obama-era policies looking to mitigate punishments for low-level, nonviolent drug crimes. Instead of prosecutors avoiding charging defendants for offenses that trigger mandatory minimum sentences, prosecutors will now have to seek the strongest charges possible for the crime. This will inevitably increase mandatory minimum sentencing and add nonviolent offenders to our already overcrowded prisons. Mandatory minimums require that specific offenses have inflexible prison terms. This is infamously problematic because it not only requires drug offenders to serve needlessly long sentences, but also more severely punishes drugs that traditionally target the lower-class. This is exemplified through the disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine: it requires eighteen times as much powder cocaine as crack cocaine to receive the same mandatory minimum term. This is only the beginning of stronger stances against crime from this administration. Sessions is undoing Obama’s progress on drug policy by reverting to laws set in place by Congress years ago. This is a memo aimed to rejuvenate the War on Drugs — a war slowed significantly by Obama’s policies.
This being said, now is not the time to rejuvenate the War on Drugs. Crime rates are near an all-time low, and even recent increases in violent crimes in cities like Chicago are not solved through tougher drug policies. However, the U.S. prison population remains the largest in the world, and 52 percent of federally-sentenced offenders were drug-related in 2012. This doesn’t even touch on the many who are not incarcerated but harassed and even arrested by police over drug possession, such as the man raided and arrested over a gram and a half of marijuana in Richland County, S.C., as documented in the film “Do Not Resist.”
The War on Drugs was and will continue to be an ineffective way to combat the drug problem in our country. It needlessly increased the incarcerated population while not taking any aims to rehabilitate users or remedy the poverty that births drug trafficking. Additionally, there is plenty of research published that shows that it has disproportionately affected minorities in America. One in three Black men ages 20 to 29 are incarcerated, and mandatory minimums on drug possession and trafficking will not help improve those numbers.
If you don’t believe the statistics that prove it, the fact that Ann Arbor residents and students at the prestigious University of Michigan can participate in a Hash Bash — glorifying the consumption of marijuana — without consequence, while Black South Carolinians are raided by police teams over marijuana proves there is a level of privilege in the matter.
Now that our Attorney General is reinforcing antiquated federal laws on drug punishment, it is important that cities and states pass initiatives to make more sensible drug policies. Supporting organizations such as the Drug Policy Alliance is critical to those initiatives. And when the state of Michigan proposes marijuana legalization in 2018, I urge those who can to vote in favor. It is only a step to more comprehensive drug policy reform but a huge one nonetheless.
Residents of Ann Arbor have benefited from lenient marijuana laws and have had the privilege of celebrating a Hash Bash festival free from penalty while much of the nation cannot. It is the duty of those of us with the freedom from draconian drug policy to support progress for those without that privilege.