Black Pastors Endorse I-502 Despite Controversy in African American Community

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A couple years ago, California NAACP head Alice Huffman endorsed marijuana legalization in her state. More than 20 African American leaders called for her resignation. "Why would the state NAACP advocate for blacks to stay high?" one church leader said. "It's going to cause crime to go up. There will be more drug babies." So it's no insignificant thing that three African American pastors have now endorsed our state's legalization measure.

The campaign announced yesterday that Rev. Leslie Braxton of New Beginnings Christian Fellowship, Rev. Carl Livingston of Kingdom Christian Center, and Rev. Steve Baber of Skyway United Methodist Church have all put their names behind Initiative 502.

Alison Holcomb, head of the initiative campaign, concedes that African Americans have been "a very tough community to bring on board." Many, she says, "view drugs as destroying their community."

But legalization campaigners made a deliberate effort to reach out to African American leaders. They held a couple of luncheons for pastors over the winter, one with Huffman and one with Paul Butler, an African American former U.S. Attorney and author who's become a crusader against mass incarceration.

"The traditional face of the marijuana legalization movement" doesn't work very well in the black community, Holcomb allows, so the speakers undoubtedly had an appeal that well-meaning white liberals (not to mention aging stoners with their recipes for "edibles") couldn't summon.

And, the fact is, the pot legalization debate can be effectively framed in racial terms.

As I-502 campaign's release about the endorsements put it: "In Washington, an African American adult is three times as likely as a white person to be arrested for marijuana possession, three times as likely to be charged, and three times as likely to be convicted, despite the fact that white Washingtonians use marijuana at a slightly higher rate."

The release also quotes Rev. Braxton (pictured above):

It's no longer enough to say the War on Drugs has been a failure. We have to recognize that it has done damage, especially to black Americans, and we have to change course. Marijuana law enforcement has become a pretext for pushing people into the criminal justice system where they get branded with criminal records that turn them into second-class citizens facing additional barriers to education and employment.

Talking to Seattle Weekly, Rev. Baber adds that drug enforcement has turned into the "reincarnation of Jim Crow. If you have a felony conviction, then you get all these prohibitions: you can't get federal loans, you can't vote, you can't stay in public housing." Such restrictions, he says, have replaced laws previously based on the color of one's skin.

Will he and his fellow endorsers experience any backlash? Stay tuned.

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