Our Ivory Tower Teeming With Green
Issue   |   Tue, 03/06/2018 - 20:37

It is a truth universally acknowledged that college students consume illegal substances. I do not know what percentage of our student body smoke marijuana (or eat, for those who prefer edibles) but I know that it’s more than zero percent. I would even wager that it’s more than 40 percent. To this end, we truly inhabit an ivory tower.

Students consume illegal substances and the town police, more or less, turns a blind eye. This situation is markedly different from how marijuana use is handled throughout the rest of the country. The Washington Post analyzed FBI statistics from 2016 and concluded that police arrested more people for marijuana possession than murder, rape, aggravated assault and robbery combined. Consider this statistic in relation to our nation’s track record with rape cases, for instance: End the Backlog, a nonprofit organization, estimates that “hundreds of thousands” of rape kits remain untested in police and crime labs across the country (If you visit their website, you can see a rough estimate of the thousands untested in your home state). Hundreds of thousands of brave survivors sought the help of police, allowed themselves to be vulnerable in front of officials and underwent invasive procedures, only to have their efforts disregarded so that law enforcement could focus on arresting more people for enjoying, or facilitating others’ enjoyment in, a psychoactive plant.

If our campus, along with most other college campuses, is relatively unbothered, where is the gaze of the law focused? Who fills up our jails and prisons for marijuana offenses? Which applicants, because of drug felonies, are disregarded by potential employers before they’ve even had a chance to interview? Disproportionately low-income people of color. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) estimates that over half of all drug arrests in the United States in 2016 were for marijuana. Of these cases, black people are clearly targeted: they are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, despite roughly equal usage rates. Not only are we wasting valuable resources prosecuting victimless/non-violent crimes, we are perpetuating a system that disproportionately oppresses people of color.

Civil rights activists and criminal justice reformers have whispered, spoken and shouted these facts at us for years. Michelle Alexander in “The New Jim Crow,” succinctly highlighted how mass incarceration and drug law enforcement represent a refined racial caste system, in which white people benefit from the criminalization of people of color. (If you recoiled in disbelief from that sentence, read the book and watch Ava DuVernay’s “13th”). These statistics are not new. However, my brief summary serves a specifically Amherst-oriented purpose.

First, we must acknowledge our privilege. As students of Amherst, we are relatively free to consume substances. While police patrol our dorms, break up parties and occasionally confiscate materials (check The Student’s crime log), these practices primarily target alcohol use and, in terms of drug crackdowns, our community is nowhere near as scrutinized as others. We have a class that meets in Hampshire County Jail and House of Corrections, and it is composed of college students and prisoners, some students of which are imprisoned for drug use. Amherst students who attend this class probably attend other classes with drug users, though those classes are on campus and those drug users are free.

Do not misunderstand. I am not advocating for stricter policing of our campus. I firmly believe marijuana should be legalized nationwide and that the federal government should end the sentences and expunge the records of all human beings whose lives have been significantly disadvantaged because the police caught them possessing, smoking and/or selling marijuana. I am, however, advocating for increased activism, which brings me to my second proposal.

Those of us who willfully disregard what we believe to be unjust laws, mostly secure in our campus bubble, must advocate for people who find joy and/or pain relief in similar activities but are, unlike us, significantly penalized for it. How might we do that? We can take note from other activist groups. We can organize and/or attend marches dedicated to marijuana legalization and advocacy for those targeted. Held annually in Boston in late September, the Freedom Rally is a relatively accessible option. We can, as always, contact our legislatures and express our frustrations with drug laws and drug law enforcement. Better yet, we could run for office ourselves and/or rally around someone from our community who truly has a deep commitment to justice and the charm to secure support (looking at you, Sade Green ’20). Speaking of community, we are assigned an extraordinary amount of papers and projects, and we always have the option to write a thesis. We could use the campus resources and these outlets to research the impact of marijuana law enforcement on different communities, public opinion on marijuana laws and usage, medicinal aspects of cannabis and so forth. We could then distribute our findings or use them as conversational pieces with family member or friends from home who do not truly grasp the injustices inherent in our current legal system as it relates to marijuana offenses. This list is just a short survey of possible actions. Do not confine yourself; think of more measures and act on them.

Understand that Amherst College is not an island unto itself. If you are an Amherst student who smokes and/or eats marijuana and you did not grow that plant yourself, you are complicit in a process that someone else may be jailed for. If you smoke and/or eat marijuana and you did grow that plant yourself, you are still not innocent. You are knowingly benefiting from systems of oppression that privilege elite college students. Faced with this position, what do you do? You acknowledge your position in society. You do not allow “terras irradient” to just act as a nifty selling point for the college. Use the resources, connections, knowledge, and skills that you’ve gained from this institution and fight to make this country more just.

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