At protest demonstrations from coast to coast, “Defund the police!” has become the rallying cry of activists mobilized in outrage over the death of George Floyd. His killing by Minneapolis police officers on May 25 crystalized long-building anger over institutionalized racism in the United States.
Amid what has now become a national uprising, ideas that were verboten in American politics just weeks ago are bursting into the mainstream. As CNN puts it: “There’s a growing group of dissenters who believe Americans can survive without law enforcement as we know it. And Americans, those dissenters believe, may even be better off without it.”
And some are going beyond calls to merely defund. Mariame Kaba, director of Project NIA, a grassroots group that works to end youth incarceration, wrote a June 12 op-ed in The New York Times bluntly entitled: “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police.” In the article, Kaba writes, “Enough. We can’t reform the police. The only way to diminish police violence is to reduce contact between the public and the police.”
Short of her vision of police abolition, Kaba puts forth a minimum demand: “Cut the number of police in half and cut their budget in half. Fewer police officers equal fewer opportunities for them to brutalize and kill people. The idea is gaining traction in Minneapolis, Dallas, Los Angeles and other cities.”
In New York, on June 23, activists under the slogan #DefundNYPD established an encampment outside City Hall, where budget negotiations are now underway.
Newsday reports that the protesters say they will not leave until at least $1 billion is cut from the police department’s $6 billion budget.
As many localities across the nation weigh in on the conversation about where to start cutting the police leviathan down to size, some have come up with an obvious answer: cannabis enforcement.
America’s Heartland Cities Are Taking Measures
The idea of cannabis decriminalization is being pushed most prominently by the mayor of Missouri’s Kansas City. Quinton Lucas, a Democrat, has announced a plan to completely remove all offenses related to cannabis possession from the city code. He charges that such offenses are used as excuses for stopping residents and contribute to over policing of the city’s Black community.
“We need to just stop harassing people,” he told National Public Radio on June 19. “Blacks are disproportionately, in Kansas City, stopped, arrested, charged and incarcerated in connection with marijuana offenses. And I’d like to see that change.”
Lucas emphasized how his imperative was shaped by his experience growing up as a Black man in Kansas City. “When I saw the George Floyd video, I actually had to stop watching it. To be Black in America is to know that any minor offense, any minor transgression, mouthing off to a cop or anyone, can mean termination from a job or frankly, termination of your life.”
As recently as last November, the city council of Kansas City rejected a decriminalization measure. When asked by NPR what changed the council’s mind, Lucas replied: “I will say very candidly — our protest movement, this moment in our country.”
As the Kansas City Star reports, Lucas has already launched a pardon program for cannabis offenses. And in 2017, voters decided overwhelmingly to reduce penalties for possession of personal quantities to a $25 fine. So, for all intents and purposes, the city has already decriminalized. Lucas’s proposal to eliminate all penalties for possession is technically what the drug policy enforcers call “depenalization.”
Lucas is realistic about the limits of municipal decriminalization. “State and federal law remain clear with marijuana,” he told local KMBC News. “The city doesn’t need to be in that business; instead, we remain focused on how we can help open doors to new opportunities and empower people to make a decent living.”
In testimony before the committee, Lucas’s policy director AJ Herrmann stated that in 2017 and 2018, African Americans comprised over 60% of the cannabis arrests in Kansas City — while making up less than 30% of the city’s population. He said that in the fiscal year that ended April 30, there were 821 cannabis cases filed in KC’s municipal courts, with 326 convictions.
“It’s our belief that removing marijuana from the code entirely would keep low-level possession cases out of court and off the criminal records of casual users,” Herrmann said, according to local public radio affiliate KCUR. “Marijuana enforcement can distract us from larger priorities. City law enforcement and court resources can be better focused on violent crimes and offenses.”
In his testimony, Lucas also stressed racial disparity.
“We see in studies that Black Americans, although having a similar percentage usage of marijuana as whites, are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses,” he stated. “At a time when we are trying to have fewer adverse encounters between community and police, this could be a situation where we could actually remove those.”
One state to the north, Iowa’s capital is also considering municipal-level cannabis decriminalization. The Des Moines City Council voted unanimously on June 22 to create a task force to study such a proposal. Once again, state and federal law would not be impacted — but the city police force would be instructed to make enforcement of cannabis possession its lowest priority.
The resolution was part of an ordinance that also included a measure to prohibit racial profiling, according to the Des Moines Register. The resolution states that the six-person volunteer task force will study the question and turn in recommendations by Oct. 1.
A decrim measure in Des Moines would arguably be even more critical than in Kansas City, as Iowa, unlike Missouri, has not decriminalized at the state level.
Justice Coming to Georgia?
Similar action at the state level appears to be in the offing in Georgia. Just ahead of the restart of the new legislative session in Atlanta on June 15, the Georgia Senate Democratic Caucus unveiled a package of bills aimed at reforming police practices as well as addressing hate crimes and related issues. These have now all been folded into a proposed Georgia Justice Act.
As Law.com reports, the Georgia Justice Act would ban rubber bullets, chokeholds and no-knock warrants. It would prohibit police chases except in extreme circumstances, such as from the scene of a violent crime. It would lift qualified immunity protections for officers accused of wrongdoing. It would restore the voting rights of nonviolent felons upon completion of their sentences. And it would make the possession of less than two ounces of cannabis a misdemeanor.
Many of these measures have been previously introduced in the statehouse in recent years and failed to pass. But, again, lawmakers perceive that a turning point has been reached.
Sen. Gloria Butler, Democratic Caucus Chairwoman, stated the following in a June 11 press release: “For years, we have been introducing legislation aimed at curtailing police violence and offering tools that would increase awareness and training efforts. However, the vast majority of Democratic legislation has been sidelined and has not received a committee hearing. Too many of our citizens have died or been injured, while politics are at play. That time is over.”
Georgia has been moving to expand its medical marijuana program in recent years, but still has among the harshest cannabis laws in the country— with simple possession punishable by up to a year in jail.
America’s Moment of Truth
History may be knocking at the door, but it is far from certain that the country will answer the call — even now.
NPR asked Kansas City’s Mayor Lucas if he feels hopeful that the United States might be in a different place a year from now.
Lucas’s response is sobering.
“Honestly, no…I have grave concerns,” said Lucas who was just a kid during the Rodney King beating, and then the subsequent LA riots when the officers were acquitted.
Nearly three decades later, Lucas says he’s dealing with the very same injustices. “I’m going to try my level best to make sure things change in Kansas City,” he said. “But no, I’m not hopeful. America has broken my heart too many times.”
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