One night last week, at a forum in Columbia City to discuss the war on drugs and its impacts on communities of color, something unprecedented happened—an African American pastor spoke about the perniciousness of prohibition and his support for Initiative 502, which would regulate and tax marijuana in Washington State.
"I'm not promoting marijuana use—no, no," said Pastor Carl Livingston of the Kingdom Christian Center. "Scripture says the body is a temple... but we need to do more to relax the drug laws that get our people caught up in the net." The crowd, almost exclusively African American, applauded enthusiastically.
When it was her turn to speak, Alice Huffman, president of the California NAACP, praised Pastor Livingston. "Pastors won't speak out!" she said, and recounted the vehement opposition of African American clergy in California when she decided to support Proposition 19, which would have allowed regulation and taxation of marijuana. "I ain't out here saving souls," she said. "I'm out here to change the law. And whenever a law is against the people, we've got to rise up and change it!"
Proposition 19 was defeated by a modest margin—53.5 to 46.5 percent—with help from African American clergy, who vociferously opposed it. Huffman had argued that legalization would help communities of color. The clergy weren't having it, and waged a TV and radio campaign to say so. But the mood at the November 29 forum in Columbia City was markedly different, with Dr. Livingston on the stage and other pastors in the audience—African American community leaders could make or break this initiative.
A few days after the forum, Neill Franklin—a former Baltimore police commander who is now the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP)—told me he was pleasantly surprised to hear from Dr. Livingston. "One year ago, ministers were not where they are today on this issue," Franklin says. "Especially not ministers of the black church."
Pastors still hold strong authority in African American communities, Franklin explained, but they've been reluctant to support legalization and regulation, despite ample evidence that drug prohibition laws unfairly target communities of color.
A recent study by the Drug Policy Alliance, for example, compares US government studies that show young blacks consistently use less marijuana than young whites, with California state statistics that show blacks are arrested for marijuana possession at double or, in some counties, quadruple the rate of whites. According to a report by Seattle's Marijuana Policy Review Panel, white people in Seattle in the year 2000 were arrested for marijuana possession at a rate of 4.38 per 10,000. Black people were arrested at a rate of 28.33 per 10,000. (In 2000, black people represented 8.4 percent of Seattle's total population.) Although arrests are down in Seattle these days, the racial disparity of pot arrests remains heavily lopsided against black people.
When Franklin first began traveling and speaking for LEAP in 2008, he says he "noticed there was a void of those who were most adversely affected, which is the black community. I expected to see blacks at the table, but it wasn't so."
So Franklin and LEAP began meeting with pastors, both in groups and individually, to talk about drug prohibition. Some ministers get the message right away, Franklin says, but others remain wary. One pastor told Franklin that he couldn't support legalization because he was already overwhelmed with the challenges of young people coming in and out of prison. "I looked at him and said: 'Pastor, you just made the case!'" Franklin said. "They wouldn't be in prison if it weren't for these policies of prohibition. And we talk about the deaths, the funerals they have in their churches because of the drug trade."
During last year's Proposition 19 campaign, Alice Huffman stirred up a hornet's nest by supporting legalization. African American ministers came out swinging—especially Bishop Ron Allen, who repeatedly went on Fox News to insist that legalization was a highway to hell. "Bishop Allen was so vehement," Franklin says, "he might as well have been calling us devils."
Even though Proposition 19 was narrowly defeated, having the debate was productive—six months ago, Franklin was at a forum about ending prohibition and Bishop Allen was in the room. Franklin looked at him from the stage, reiterating the need for drug-policy reform. To Franklin's surprise, Bishop Allen stood up and nodded in agreement.
Dr. Carl Livingston says he first got involved when local members of the American Civil Liberties Union approached him. "For us, in the African American community, this is life or death," he says. "This is serious. This confines us to a secondary legal status."
Dr. Livingston says he's talking to other pastors about drug prohibition from a scriptural basis, and cites Amos 5:24. "Let justice roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream," he says. "And when you look at the context, you see powerful people using the laws in ways that help powerful people and hurt less-powerful people."
So far, I-502 has gathered 270,000 of the 340,000 signatures it needs by December 30 to qualify for next year's ballot.