In Former Arrest Hubs, Positions On Pot Are Hazy

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Author: Paul Schwartzman


Suspicion and Wariness of Marijuana Legalization Abounds - Especially Among Those in Public Housing

Jamal Vaughn, a mechanical engineering student, was on his aunt's stoop in Northeast Washington on a recent afternoon, his long fingers curled around a half-smoked joint.

"It used to be, ' Let me see who's around,' " Vaughn, 21, said between puffs and giggles, referring to his wariness of cops who had long made this neighborhood east of the Anacostia River a hot spot for pot arrests.

"Now I can relax," Vaughn said, attributing his mood swing to one fact: Marijuana is now legal in most parts of the District, including on his aunt's doorstep.

Around the corner, John Ford, 60, a retired federal marshal, said legalization renews old worries. Pot is a well-traveled path to other drugs, he argued, particularly in a neighborhood with a searing history of drug abuse, drug-dealing and drug-related violence.

"You're going to try Ecstasy and speed," he predicted. "Next thing, you'll have a crack pipe in your mouth."

A robust majority of District voters approved marijuana legalization during November's election, with support for Initiative 71 surpassing 70 percent in diverse, higher-income precincts such as Shaw, Adams Morgan and Logan Circle.

But on the east side, in blue-collar and middle-income black neighborhoods where pot arrests have been among the most voluminous in the city, residents are more ambivalent and even mistrustful of legalization.

A majority of voters in neighborhoods off of East Capitol Street- sloping enclaves such as Deanwood, Lincoln Heights and Marshall Heights - supported the referendum. But a third of the electorate in those areas rejected the measure, a level of opposition that was the city's highest.

"People know the blight it causes, the loitering, the public nuisance it creates," said D.C. Council member Yvette M. Alexander ( D-Ward 7 ), who represents the area. "In other parts of the city, people don't see the brazenness, the smoking in front of children and seniors. People here see it as disrespecting their community."

'I'm very suspicious of it'

Along Division Avenue NE, a mix of brick homes, frayed and vacant storefronts, churches and a park named for Marvin Gaye, the singer who grew up nearby, proponents of legalization said marijuana is a fact of everyday life, along with more dangerous drugs such as PCP and heroin.

Legalizing pot, they said, would put an end to what studies have shown - that cops are far more likely to arrest young black men for marijuana, even though the drug is just as popular among whites.

"They don't even pay attention to the white guys who are doing it. I sit here and see white boys buying drugs all the time," said Theresa Jones, 59, a grant specialist, as she swept in front of her rowhouse on Division Avenue. "We're hurting our kids for something that's not as bad as alcohol. If it's going to be a criminal act, everyone needs to serve time."

Otherwise, she said, it should be legal for all.

Still, the new law has created fresh concerns, particularly in pockets where marijuana remains illegal, such as public housing projects funded by the federal government, which still classifies the drug as illegal. If caught with pot, those tenants can be arrested and evicted.

Robin Fitzgerald, 39, a homecare aide who lives in Northeast, said she voted to legalize marijuana. But she has reconsidered her support since the election, questioning whether the government will enforce the law to target public housing residents, many of whom live on the city's east side.

"I'm very suspicious of it," Fitzgerald said as she stood outside her church, Holy Christian House of Praise, on Nannie-Helen Burroughs Avenue NE. "It's a way to push black people out."

Standing nearby, her pastor, Steve Young, said pot legalization amounted to a government endorsement of drug use in neighborhoods with too many people already struggling with substance abuse of one form or another.

"They're corrupting the community and condemning it," he said. Referring to parts of the city that are wealthier and white, he said, "Take it over to Connecticut Avenue. Take it over to Georgetown."

As Young spoke, a disheveled, middle-aged man approached, his words slurred as he shouted a greeting.

Young asked the man for his views on legalization.

"Party at my house tonight," the man replied, laughing.

The pastor shrugged, as if his point had been made, and walked away.

A history of abuse

On a recent Tuesday morning, a white motor home was parked on Division Avenue, across from the men loitering in front of the Strand Liquor Store and a row of boarded-up storefronts, one of which bore the graffiti tag "R.I.P."

Now and then, someone stepped into the camper, which is operated by the Family & Medical Counseling Service, emptied a bag of used syringes into a red bin and left with a fresh supply of needles.

The camper is a reminder that the area is infused with drugs and drug abuse. In the 1980s, the problems were sufficient that the District government staged a "DrugFree D.C. Day" rally at the intersection of Division and Nannie Helen Burroughs avenues, inviting the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Kool & The Gang and Chuck Brown.

The land dedicated to Marvin Gaye once was known as "Needle Park," a gathering point for junkies who, for a time, left behind 1,000 dirty syringes a year.

By all accounts, the worst of the drug epidemic has passed, and heroin addicts no longer congregate along the corridor in nearly the same numbers. "We might find a needle a month," said Steve Coleman, executive director of Washington Parks & People, a nonprofit group that helped restore Marvin Gaye Park.

At the same time, marijuana has remained pervasive.

From 2000 to 2010, the police service area that includes Division Avenue recorded the second-highest total number of marijuana arrests in the city. In 2010, the area had the District's highest per capita rate of pot arrests, 75 times greater than predominantly white Woodley Park, according to an American Civil Liberties Union analysis.

The racial disparity in the arrests has fueled demands for reforms to drug laws in the District and across the country. But Alexander, the council member who represents the area, said the inequity should have propelled police to make marijuana busts in white neighborhoods, as well.

"We didn't need a referendum to stop arrests," she said. "What people wanted was for the arrests to be made across the board."

Marijuana legalization, she said, has deprived the police of a tool to detect more serious crimes.

"If they stop someone for marijuana, they may find a gun or outstanding warrants," she said. "The arrests led to a better cleaning of the streets for other crimes that plague our community."

Telling people, 'It's okay.'

The racial disparity in arrests was a main reason the Rev. Edwin Jones said that he supported decriminalization of marijuana. A pastor in the neighborhood for a decade, Jones said he understands the hurdles an arrest record can create for young men seeking employment.

But, he said, legalization is going too far.

"Now you're telling young people, 'It's okay,' " he said. "It's a joke. They're going to do what they're going to do because they see it as nothing."

Walter Garcia, an advisory neighborhood commissioner who represents the area, said young people already view marijuana as relatively harmless - with or without legalization. He supported the referendum, he said, because he was fed up with the "numbers of young men who are harassed and arrested over the smallest amounts."

"They now have a fighting chance," said Garcia, who works for the District Department of Corrections. "I can't recall any violence behind the use of marijuana. We have domestic violence because of alcohol. Maybe because of marijuana, it will cut down on alcohol and the number of assaults."

Others have sharply differing views, often based on personal experience.

Janice Hazel, another neighborhood commissioner, said each of the four times her 1999 Dodge has been stolen, she has found liquor bottles and marijuana residue inside the car when it was recovered. On her street, she is accustomed to walking through "clouds of marijuana smoke" to reach her front door.

"I've been threatened by people smoking it," she said. "I see it as people becoming out of control."

The potential for destructive behavior, she said, is more of a concern than statistics that show blacks are arrested more often than whites for pot. "It's not that I want the punishment," she said. "But legalization can harm people down the road, in a different way. I know it's a gateway drug. I know young people who went on to higher drugs - cocaine, crack, synthetic drugs - and marijuana is where they started."

A mile-and-a-half away, David Smith, 40, sat at his kitchen table and nodded. Yes, he acknowledged, marijuana is a "gateway." "But so many things are," he said. He also understands that drugs can foster violence, having grown up in Deanwood during the height of the crack epidemic in the 1980s. In 2011, he recalled, an armed robber shot his 11-year-old daughter during a break-in at his house.

Smith, president of the Deanwood Citizens Association, supports pot legalization. His main reason has nothing to do with the promise that it will keep police from harassing young African American men.

Cops, he predicted, will find other reasons to stop them. "Look at American history," he said. "It's always been that way."

The main benefit of legalization is economics, he said, envisioning a future in which the District taxes marijuana sales and uses the revenue to renovate schools and parks - and otherwise help his neighborhood.

"It's like the lottery," he said. "It's about the money."

Illegal in public housing

A five-minute drive south, at noon on a Thursday, Charles Sharp, 34, an electrician, was seated in a white plastic chair outside his apartment at the Lincoln Heights public housing project. By his own account, he had just finished smoking a joint on his front lawn.

Until a few days before, he had thought he was free to get high as long as he remained on his property. Then a neighbor warned him that he could be arrested and his family evicted because pot is illegal in public housing.

"I can't smoke on my own property where I pay rent?" he asked, his tone a mix of outrage and exasperation. "But they can do it around the corner?"

He cursed and promised to keep on smoking.

A couple of blocks away, Maurice Chambers, 20, and Antonio Color, 19, passed a joint back and forth as they descended the hilly terrain of 50th Street, a route that took them out of Lincoln Heights.

They said they understood that legalization does not allow them to smoke pot on a public sidewalk. But they said that the change in the law has made them far less concerned that the police will bother them.

"They're not going to jump out on you no more," Color said, passing the joint to his friend.

"We can do this," Chambers said, puffing away as the two men went on their way.

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