As someone who has had the unique experience of witnessing America’s drug war from both the front lines and the prison camps, and as someone who is an Ivy League graduate who has spent the last decade advocating for the legalization of marijuana, I found a recent column printed by the Indian Country Today Media network both disturbing and offensive.
The piece, titled, “Yo, Potheads! Being a Stoner Is Not the Native Way,” although catchy in title, was reminiscent of a simpler time in society when science was folklore and the truth about marijuana was largely absent from the public policy debate on criminalization. It was almost as if it was written during a time when stereotypes and caricatures shaped public opinion about those who felt marijuana should be legal. Luckily, tie-dye shirts of past generations have been traded in for the suits and ties we wear today.
In the Native media we are quick to criticize those from outside our communities who promote stereotypes about us as Indian people; yet, it seems we are ok with printing factually inaccurate columns that promote stereotypes of certain but significant parts of our population as long as they are written by one of our own.
In the piece the author sadly refers to those of us who are advocates for the legalization of marijuana as “hipsters” who say, “Make peace not war.” Some may in fact be that but the ones I know are actually young educated journalists, academics, lawyers, doctors and just everyday people who have witnessed what criminalization has actually done to poor and minority communities. This conversation cannot be masked by the stereotype of the slurred speech stoner, it must be looked at as a public policy decision based on empirical evidence. This empirical evidence says these policies do not benefit tribal communities or reduce addiction rates.
Although I respect the opinions of those who see things differently than me on this issue there are really two important questions for all of us to ask: is marijuana addicting, and has the strategy of mass incarceration and long prison sentences for drug crimes reduced the number of users?
The answer to the first question is debatable but more than likely, yes. Marijuana is addictive. The answer to the second question is an absolute no. Incarceration and criminalization does not solve the root of the problem for those who want to rid society of these substances. While the incarceration rate has increased by more than 800% since 1973, the year America declared a war on drugs, use across the board has relatively remained stable. That is not much of a return on the $1 trillion investment the U.S. government has made fighting illegal narcotics.
Over the course of the last decade public sentiment regarding the legalization of marijuana has shifted in favor of decriminalization as minority communities, who have been hit disproportionately hard by long draconian drug sentences doled out for non-violent crimes, cry out for an end to the madness. Conservative lawmakers and prosecutors, who have now begun to realize that mass incarceration does not work, have called for a change in national drug enforcement policy and a remaking of marijuana policy in particular. Even in South Dakota, one of America’s most conservative states, policy makers have admitted that they cannot prosecute their way out of America’s demand for drugs. All the while, those suffering from everything from depression, inflammation, ADHD, AIDS and cancer are now calling for less stringent government regulation and the decriminalization of marijuana.
Research in to the medicinal benefits of marijuana is still in its infancy as large pharmaceuticals and its powerful lobbyists have blocked the expansion of medical marijuana research for decades despite evidence that marijuana and its byproducts can treat many diseases. The companies blocking marijuana research are the very same ones that have produced the synthetic painkillers that our communities are strung out on right now. As big pharmaceutical works in DC against legalization the for profit prison industry has pushed for longer sentences for non-violent offenders. Statistically these non-violent drug offenders are most likely to be from impoverished and/or minority communities and will more than likely become repeat offenders. Those of us who are from these communities recognize this as we see friends and relatives bounce in and out of the federal penal system. The numbers do not lie.
Continuing to lock up young Native American males for marijuana or any other non-violent offense is not the answer to our issues with substance abuse on reservations or anywhere else for that matter. While others profit, we continue to produce broken families, addicts, and poverty as a result of this broken policy. We cannot sit idly and fuel the same stereotypes that have been used to defend an unfair and unjust strategy of mass incarceration. I do not wade into the debate of what is traditional or not, but one thing for sure, it is a whole lot harder for someone to live traditionally if they are being forced to do so from behind a barbwire fence.
Brandon Ecoffey is an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He earned his education at Dartmouth College and is currently the managing editor of Native Sun News, Health and Life Editor at Native Max Magazine, and a contributor to LastRealIndians.com.