California: Odd Bedfellows in the Pro-Pot Ballot Initiative

"In California African Americans make up 7 percent of the population, but 22 percent of the marijuana arrests," she says. "I see it as a civil rights issue because so many of our young people get their start in the criminal justice system over a joint."

Huffman, who also is the chairwoman of the national NAACP's criminal justice board, said the national leadership hasn't released a position on her state's impending vote.

But she adds that "if we want to rescue our young people and keep them out of prison, we have to not only attack the education system but also the dysfunctional parts of the system that's criminalizing our children disproportionately and causing them lifelong harm."

Marijuana possession arrests of teenagers of color rose from 3,100 in 1990 to 16,300 in 2008 -- an arrest surge that is 300 percent greater than population growth in that group -- according to the California Department of Justice. In 1990 half of the state's arrestees were nonwhite. By 2008 that figure had surged to 62 percent.

Law Enforcement Breaking Ranks

Those arrests place a burden on the law enforcement system. So, while the statewide police chiefs association has come out against the ballot initiative, there are many within the law enforcement community who are breaking with the official line. Jeffrey Studdard, a former school district police officer and reserve L.A. County sheriff's deputy, literally lends his voice in support of the initiative in its first radio ad.

Judge James Gray is a former presiding judge of the Orange County Superior Court, a former federal prosecutor and Navy JAG attorney -- a self-described "conservative judge in a conservative county appointed by a conservative governor" -- is a strong supporter of the initiative.

"Nobody today is selling Jim Beam bourbon to your high school student on their campus. They're selling marijuana and methamphetamines," he says. By keeping marijuana illegal "you give up everything having to do with its quality, its price, its place of sale and everything else."

Gray says many of his former colleagues on the bench and the police force agree with him but fear political fallout if they were to speak out. "The one thing we could do to make the job [of policing] less dangerous would be to legitimize and control the sale of these illegal drugs."

The California Police Chiefs Association, however, argues that this is a mischaracterization of the work they do. They just don't spend their time on cases involving less than an ounce. If someone is caught with less than an ounce of pot now it's a citation with a small fine.

Pastor Ron Allen of Sacramento is one of the leaders of a coalition of cops and clergy who say legalizing marijuana will lead to the use of harder drugs and only cause more problems for society.

For Allen, this is also a personal crusade. He was a crack cocaine addict for seven years, and he says it all started with marijuana.

Passage "would devastate California to the fullest extent. ... This is the worst thing that California could ever try to do," Allen said.

In an ironic twist, some of the more strident opponents to the legalization of marijuana are less likely to speak out -- the people who grow it illegally today. Once the black market is made legitimate, growers stand to see their prices drop.

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