Blacks took lead as Michigan ‘freed the weed’

In jovial fashion, state Sen. Coleman Young II (D-Detroit) declared about the recent passage of Proposal 1, the statewide ballot measure that legalizes the recreational use of marijuana:

“I think it’s a tremendous victory that we freed the weed, as I like to say, or legalize marijuana in a time when African-Americans are four times more likely to be convicted of marijuana [crimes], even though they use it at the same rate as their white counterparts in this country, and are 12 times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of a drug crime. I think it is high time that we start getting these young men and women out of these prisons and we start putting them into jobs in the cannabis industry.”

Coleman Young II

Young, who is term-limited and made the declaration during a portion of his farewell speech last week in the Legislature’s upper chamber, appeared to speak for an overwhelming number of Detroit voters, most of whom are African-American.

Michigan voters approved Proposal 1 on Nov. 6. It faced fierce opposition from the Detroit Branch NAACP and other leaders in the African-American community, but won almost 70 percent of votes in the overwhelmingly black Motor City — a significantly higher percentage than the 56 percent “yes” statewide total.

But does that mean black votes outpaced those of whites and others?

Earlier this year, the 48-member Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, D.C., reported out its support for efforts to decriminalize the use and possession of marijuana. The body of African-American federal lawmakers stated:

“(S)tates should be allowed to make their own decisions about how to regulate marijuana and the federal government should be out of the business of prohibition and related law enforcement of marijuana.”

In the Motor City, 130,039 voted “yes” on Proposal 1 and only 58,263 voted “no”. Turnout was unusually high for a midterm election: 41 percent. While there isn’t exit polling that would scientifically substantiate such a conclusion, 83 percent of Detroit’s population is African-American. So it stands to reason by percentage that black “yes” votes exceeded other races.

Detroit voters have previously approved other measures involving the use of marijuana. In 2004, they OK’d marijuana for medicinal use. Similarly, Michigan voters endorsed marijuana for medicinal use in 2008.

In 2012, Detroit voters backed a measure that allowed for recreational marijuana use in small amounts on private property.

The Rev. Wendell Anthony, Detroit Branch NAACP president, was featured in political advertising during the early fall urging state residents to vote “no” on Proposal 1.

“Our children need hope,” declared Anthony, a Detroit resident who is African-American, in a YouTube campaign video. “Not dope.”

During an interview with the Advance last week, Anthony said candidly, “I’m not surprised that it passed. People want to smoke weed.”

Wendell Anthony

He pointed out that Proposal 1 doesn’t address the negative effects of recreational use on the black community. Anthony added that the measure could have a disparate impact on employment, auto insurance rates and the percentage of arrests.  

In Colorado, for example, where recreational marijuana use is legal, the juvenile arrest rate for black youth involving weed has risen 58 percent, according to the Colorado Department of Public Safety. It had risen 29 percent for Hispanic youth — and has dropped 8 percent for whites.  

Eric Foster, group director for strategy and business development at Banks & Company, a public relations firm, argued that anti-Proposal 1 forces didn’t offer a clear and functional action plan.

“They had no real outreach to people of color that included mailing, phone calls, town halls, etc.,” said Foster, who is African-American. “Their voice was meaningless.”

Banks & Company has conducted informational meetings across the state regarding marijuana-related business opportunities for several years. It supported Proposal 1. Foster said that in addition to support for recreational use, African-Americans and other people of color are increasingly realizing economic opportunities involving marijuana-related production and distribution.

Deborah Omokehinde is an African-American Detroit resident who voted no on Proposal 1. She said she believes that recreational use of marijuana among some black Detroit residents is a popular cultural expression. A former parent liaison at Detroit Public Schools, Omokehinde recalls encountering African-American school-aged children whose clothes smelled of marijuana.

“You had kids who were in kindergarten and being dropped off at school smelling like marijuana,” recalls Omokehinde who holds a master’s degree in social work and has taught at Wayne State University. “You had mothers — young mothers — walking up to the school as they were smoking a joint.”

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman reports on Southeast Michigan, education, civil rights and voting rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.

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