It’s one of those ironies that is sure to give rise to headlines about how politics makes for strange bedfellows. The NAACP has come out in favor of states’ rights. The organization has not embraced states’ rights in general, but it has in one particular instance: marijuana laws.
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The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is backing H.R. 1523, the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act of 2013. Uncharacteristically for legislation before Congress, the law’s name means exactly what it says. If enacted, the law would allow state marijuana laws to take precedence over federal laws. That means medical marijuana laws enacted in 20 states and laws allowing recreational use passed by voters recently in Colorado and Washington would carry the day in those states, not federal prohibition.
The bill has bipartisan support. Most of its 20 cosponsors are Democrats, but the bill’s author is California Republican Dana Rohrabacher, a Reagan-era conservative in good standing, and the bill’s Republican co-sponsors include not only libertarian-leaning Rep. Justin Amash but traditional conservatives Duncan Hunter of California and Steve Stockman of Texas.
The bill’s GOP backers, to their credit, do more than talk about federalism. They actually support it, even when it comes to a “culture war” issue like marijuana. They say let the states have their way, and in so doing they are more consistent than many of their Republican colleagues, who abandon federalism when it becomes politically inconvenient.
It’s actually the Democrats and the NAACP that are diverging from their normal pro-federal supremacy views. States’ rights has a checkered history, to put it mildly, given its historical associations first with slavery and later with Jim Crow. When it comes to states’ rights, the NAACP has usually been on the other side, and with good reason. Now the NAACP has good reason to back states’ rights. Marijuana prohibition, like drug prohibition in general, disproportionately affects African Americans.
In its resolution endorsing H.R. 1523, the NAACP states, “even though numerous studies demonstrate that whites and African Americans use and sell marijuana at relatively the same rates, studies also demonstrate that African Americans are, on average, almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, and in some jurisdictions Blacks are 30 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites.”
The impact of marijuana laws has always been disproportionate, and that is no surprise given that racism was a major motivation for its prohibition in 1937, when marijuana was associated with black culture, the Harlem Renaissance and jazz musician Cab Calloway’s invocation of “that funny Reefer Man.” Given the diverse coalition backing H.R. 1523, it appears this time there is little harm in giving states leeway to experiment with their marijuana laws without federal interference. When the NAACP backs states’ rights, everyone should take notice.
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