LET’S START OUR story far away. Almost a century ago, when the laws of prohibition ruled the land and Detroit was a busy conduit of bootleg whiskey coming in from Hiram Walker’s distillery, conveniently located just over the water in Windsor. On crisp winter nights, industrious men stuffed cases of Canadian whiskey into their cars and, dodging the border patrol, drove straight out across the frozen ice of Lake St. Claire, speeding toward the bright lights of the Motor City.
But sometimes the ice cracked. Sometimes the cars sank.
Every so often, I find myself thinking about those luckless drivers. The men stuck behind the wheel were never the major players; they weren’t Capones or Lanskys. They probably weren’t even full-fledged members of Detroit’s notorious Purple Gang- a gang that got its name because they were said to be “like bad meat, purple.” Instead, most of these drivers were just poor, hungry for a dollar, ambitious for a bit of prestige or notoriety or simply scrambling to get ahead. Why else would they take such risks? But then the ice cracked, the water opened up and down they went, surprised and chagrined, swallowed and forgotten.
Okay, let’s leave them there for a brief moment and fast forward to the here and now. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, in 2012 more than half a million people in the U.S. were arrested for possession of marijuana, not for selling, but merely for possession. Most of them came from poor backgrounds, and most of them are men of color (I’ll get to the statistics on this shortly). That’s a big number – half a million people – all of them hauled into the rough mechanics of our criminal justice system.
Can you imagine half a million of anything? It’s hard to see.
Maybe try this exercise, imagine half a million black cars, all driving across a barren white frozen lake. Now imagine the ice is cracking, and all those cars are quickly sinking, lopsided, doors opening, bodies scrambling, flailing. Can you see the faces of the drivers? Their trapped, frightened faces as they try to escape, their wool coats soaking heavy in the water, their shoes filling up, the current sucking them down? Can you see them? Can you see even one of them?
Of course, you might not have to imagine such things for long. After all, times are changing. Today a new economy is currently taking off. Perhaps it is not a boom, but it is definitely a boomlet. Thanks to the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, some nice law-abiding citizens are making real money off the drug. It is, as Michael Corleone might say, “completely legitimate.” The states benefit from this new economy by taxing these marijuana sales in order to pay for things like schools, roads and prisons (ironically, these taxes pay for the continued imprisonment of people who sold marijuana back when it was completely verboten and outlawed because such a terrible drug could never, must never, be sold anywhere.)
It is, of course, probably a good thing that the laws are evolving. People are coming to see that our draconian policies were wrong-headed and maybe (probably) caused more harm than good. As cash-strapped states look at the success of legalization in Colorado and Washington, it is easy to see that that new economy is probably going to expand. After all, it’s hard for a D.A. to argue for a stiff sentence in Portland, Oregon when it’s legal just over the border in Washington. Plus, there are budget gaps that need filling and there is all that tax revenue waiting to be collected.
So, the rules have changed and they’re probably going to keep changing. New people will come along and profit. Undoubtedly, they will be the sort of people who always profit, people who look a lot like the people who make up the rules in the first place. This time, they will probably have names like Matt and Spencer and Chad, the sort of men who grew up in the suburbs, who are happy to have found a niche, and who are positively digging this new world. Their fathers are proud of them too; after all, their boys have found a vocation.
Right now, one of these boys has just slathered on his sunscreen and is out bobbing on the water, getting ready to go slalom another lap around the lake. He’s giving the thumbs up to his girl in the bikini. She works as a regional sales rep for a large pharmaceutical company. They’re drinking rum and cokes. Life is good.
But meanwhile, across the country, perhaps in the Mound Correctional Facility just past 6 Mile Road right here in Detroit, there sits the other man, the one who sold marijuana illegally, the one who got caught. According to the ACLU, as of 2006 African Americans made up only 15 percent of the drug users in this country, yet they accounted for 37 percent of those arrested on drug charges, 54 percent of those convicted of drug charges and a shocking 74 percent of those sentenced to prison. It’s hard to read those numbers and believe that justice is blind. So it’s hard to read those numbers and not think that, yes, that one fellow sitting in the Mound Correctional Facility is probably African American while that man on the water skis is probably white.
So, what do those two men think about one another? What do you think about the two of them? It takes some effort to think about these things, we work hard not to. We can binge watch “Orange Is The New Black” knowing full well that it is about as relevant to prison life as “Hogan’s Heroes” was to life in Nazi Germany. Dressing real issues up in awkward comedy is as close as we usually bring ourselves to difficult subjects. We have designed our real prison system in a manner that keeps all that ugliness out of our thoughts and keeps the actual prisoners locked away from our imaginations. That is what makes us feel safe. So, no, we don’t want to think about the issues like the privatization of correctional facilities, the ethical cost of prison labor, and our abetting role in the constant violation of civil liberties. That’s heady stuff. We would all honestly prefer to curl up, reach for the remote, and hit play.
But can we really do that now? The progress we are making changes and shifts things, putting a new light on subjects that we have long pushed into the shadows. What does Matt and Chad’s new success in the marijuana industry really mean? What happens to a criminal when we decide a crime is no longer a crime? Shouldn’t we step back and think about this, perhaps consider a way to return these people to their communities, maybe provide some way for them to start again?
Or are we just going to leave them stuck there, floundering in the ice, desperately sinking down the bottom of that vast frozen lake?