Marijuana Legalization Must Remain Public Policy Debate

Brandon Ecoffey

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.

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I am the author of the article that you refer to at the beginning of your article. I did not say that advocates for the legalization of marijuana are "hipsters". I said those that smoke marijauna recreationally are "hipsters" reminiscent of the "make peace not war" 60's. It doesn't glamorize it even if you are wearing "suits and ties" or attended an Ivy league school. If you are not in the field of recovery please don't speak to the issue of addiction as it relates to illegal drugs. This is not the message our Native youth need to see. I absolutely agree that mass incarceration and long sentences for drug related crimes are not working. I haven't even expressed my views on the legalization of marijuana. That wasn't the intent of my column. I was speaking from my area of expertise which is mental health and imploring people to try changing their lifestyle to help manage their symptoms of depression, anxiety and PTSD. We don't need Native Ivy league graduates in suits and ties advocating for the recreational use of marijuana. In Michelle Alexander's book entitled The New Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness she speaks of Reagan's 80's War on Drugs which was really an attempt to take out the black vote by going into communities and arresting "low hanging fruit" and sentencing them to long periods of time in prison essentially destroying black families. It is a must read for all doing racial justice work and those supporting the decriminalization of marijuana. You could have written this article without putting words into my mouth and making assumptions about my views on things Mr. Ecoffey. You are the one sterotyping.
I support the decriminalizing of marijuana use or at the very least equity in arrests and incarceration rate. Anything that has a disproportionate effect on Native people needs to be addressed. I don't believe legalizing it for the expressed purpose of using the drug recreationally is the way to go. In my community I was involved in a Racial Justice Improvement Project and what we did was address bail reform. People of color were being locked up at disproportionate rates pre-judification as compared to dominant culture. What we did was to enable all people to have the same opportunity to be released prior to trial. Something like this could be done to decrease the long sentences, big fines, and disproportionality. At the same time we wouldn't be legalizing yet another drug for people to use/abuse.
fslafountaine's picture
It was a pleasure to read this article. Brandon Ecoffey stated many indisputable facts and insights about Native Americans and the legalization of marijuana.
Christina Rose's picture
Well written, great thoughts on the subject!
Christina Rose
andre's picture
Great article and truly hits the nail squarely on the head. The 'neanderthals' who continue to support prohibition of marijuana will never get it. But the rest of us do.
Donna, I came to the same conclusions Brandon Ecoffey came to after reading your article, which seemed flawed from the title onward. How is taking pills MORE Native American than smoking a natural herb? That is the kind of "logic" that was beaten into Native Americans in boarding schools in the early part of the 20th century. I think both of you are wrong on addiction, from a semantic point of view "addiction" has been overused to the point that it's being applied to Big Macs! The difference between "habit" and "addiction" is pretty wide, it's the difference between wanting a Big Mac and being willing to have sex with strangers for Big Macs. Such hyperbole has marked the Disinformation War that came piggybacked on the War on Minorities...er...I mean the War on Drugs. I did a lot of reporting on Vietnam Veterans for this paper, and off the record, a lot of them told me that if they hadn't self medicated with marijuana some of them would have snapped a long time ago...I guess these "hipsters" should stop using what worked for them for decades and toughen up like the generation before them who went untreated or become addicted to the drugs being sold to them through "Big Pharma" instead. (Basically the pharmaceutical saw how much was being made on illegal addictive drugs, so they made "legal" addictive drugs to get in on the action). Personally, I say if a paper cut can be effectively treated with marijuana, go for it, "white guilt" be damned. As for addictive personalities, they get addicted to everything, including Big Macs, but just because there are some people who can't handle a herb, I hardly see why it has to be kept from the rest of the world that can benefit from it (I'm allergic to Penicillin, but I don't try to keep other people from using the drug). Like I said, I came to the same conclusions Mr. Ecoffey did after reading your article; if it takes two more posts to explain your point of view, it is obvious that you were inarticulate in your first article, you were not eloquent, you did not get your intended audience on your side, you used a Hayakawa-esque snarl word ("hispters,") and then took this "holier-than-thou attitude about how pills are more "Native" than herbs. The point of having a minority press is to have stories that are different from the mainstream and to examine news stories from a Native American preservative. Your article was insulting to Native Americans, and you obviously crafted it in a way that WOULD be insulting to Native Americans. If you are just going to be a mouthpiece for the boarding schools and big pharmaceutical companies, you probably out to take your ideas to some place more appropriate, like Fox News. Of course I figure the article was originally published just to start a controversy to generate "clicks" in order to look good to our advertisers .
Buffalo Jim's picture
Not everyone who uses cannabis is a 'stoner'. It is an incredibly special, powerful plant that deserves respect. Some Natives have known this for a long time- http://www.hightimes.com/read/tuscarora-people-hemp
Buffalo Jim