A Father’s Lament: Cannabis Prohibition, Race and My Son

  • by Allen St. Pierre, Former NORML Executive Director December 27, 2009

    Despite the bizarre claims of some prohibitionists and law enforcement representatives that ‘no one in America gets arrested or goes to jail for cannabis charges’, NORML receives hundreds of emails and letters a week from our fellow citizens who’ve been negatively impacted by cannabis prohibition laws–notably due to an encounter with law enforcement.2000000-feb-241

    A few weeks ago I received a letter from a father of a young man arrested and incarcerated on minor cannabis-related charges in Arlington, Virginia. The father’s lament is deep and profound, beyond the standard pleas for help NORML so regularly receives. So much so that I asked him if he would send NORML the original letter for publication.

    A few local points of interest to those outside of the Washington, DC area. Arlington county is by most measures one of the more ‘liberal’ and tolerant counties in the commonwealth, maybe the most liberal. Thousands of people who work for the federal government, political partisans, non profit organizations and trade associations reside in Arlington, which has an ever-shrinking native African American community. The writer clearly sets out to make it clear that supposedly progressive counties like Arlington still have a dark side regarding how disproportionately minorities are ensnared into the criminal justice system for cannabis, and how dramatic the impact is to them, their family members–and the taxpayer’s of Arlington.

    The Barnes family’s experience in Arlington plays out across the nation every single day, where minorities are arrested at rates three to one, and higher, with even greater disparity regarding incarceration.

    In fact the New York Times just reported on such last Wednesday in an apropos article entitled ‘White Smokes Pot, But Blacks Get Arrested‘.

    Racial / Ethnic breakdown of only American adults who have used cannabis

    Racial / Ethnic breakdown of only American adults who have used cannabis

    While it is true that most cannabis consumers who get busted for possession do not go to jail or prison on the first offense (however,  tens of thousands of Americans are incarcerated annually on cannabis-related charges, including on mere possession charges, often for subsequent possession arrests), a positive drug test submitted whilst on probation can often land otherwise minor cannabis possession cases into jail or prison, most acutely to minorities and the poor.

    The practice is called ‘shock incarceration’.

    Many citizens–rich and poor, black and white–self-medicate with cannabis to try to work through any number of mental disorders, from bipolarity to attention deficit disorders to post-traumatic stress, however, a life-shattering introduction into the tax coffer-draining criminal justice system is hardly the proper prescription for their health struggles.

    Arlington, VA

    December 9, 2009

    Re:  Joshua Barnes, incarceration for distribution of several ounces of marijuana and probation violation pertaining to same.

    Dear Mr. St. Pierre:

    On February 13, 2009 my son Joshua Barnes was incarcerated in Arlington County, Virginia for possession and distribution of four ounces or less of marijuana on three occasions in 2008 and for violation of probation pertaining to several possessions and distribution charges, also of four ounces or less of marijuana in 2005.  On September 19, 2009 Arlington County Circuit Judge Benjamin Kendrick sentenced Joshua on the former charge to five years with two and one-half years suspended plus three years of supervised probation effective immediately upon his release.  Then on October 2, 2009, fellow Circuit Court Judge James Almond sentenced him to an additional fourteen months of the 2006 four-year suspended sentence, to be served consecutively in the penitentiary.  The combined time will confine my son for roughly forty four months, minus fifteen percent plus an additional three years of probation immediately upon release, all totaling more than six years under law enforcement control and scrutiny.

    In Arlington County, as in any predominately white enclave a black before the courts is likely to be the recipient of justice compromised.  Whether you perceive yourself as black, white or any of the other commonly used arbitrary colors to designate one’s racial/ethnic classification we must step up to the plate and be candid with ourselves in regard to “what is” in dealing with this reality.  We must be mindful that we are not dealing with mere machines but humans whose mental processes and emotions do play major roles in the composition of personality.  To put it another way, what we perceive by means of whatever medium molds our conscience, thus; our reactions are in response.  Invariably, for example, the average white’s response to black male’s presence in the immediate vicinity while stopped awaiting the signal light to change is to activate the door locks.   This common response fosters the criminal image of the black male held by whites and negatively impacts the mindset when the latter sits in judgment, be it the role of the judge, juror, or prosecutor on a black fate.  To put it blatantly, for whites one of the foremost traits of blacks is criminal.  When blacks behave accordingly, whites’ racist contention is fulfilled and appeasement is rewarded as a consequence.  For those in rejoice regarding the behavior it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy is achieved.  Any major newspaper of cities where blacks are in substantial numbers will have mug shots of black males in their daily crime sections.  This further fuels the mindset regarding and criminal black male and gives greater reinforcement and criminal nature of blacks, particularly the black male.

    Therefore, it is illogical and ludicrous to assume (it is only an assumption) that the average white judge, juror prosecutor or any other role player involved will suddenly and miraculously be impartial and color-blind when acting in judgment on the fate of a black, especially black male.  Ideally, we wish human nature would allow us to vacate our personal prejudices, if only temporarily.

    Justice, as many of us are aware of can be manipulated and often has a price tag.  Unlikely, elite corporates, powerful industrialists, politicians, select entertainment moguls and etc. would be subjected to the same criminal system and receive comparable sentences for distribution of small amounts of marijuana and probation involving the same charges.  It would be utterly unimaginable to witness a Kennedy, Bush, Gates, Bloomberg, Clinton, McCartney, Buffet, Oprah Winfrey or the likes who received the same fate as Joshua for the same non-violent violation.  This tactic of using power to influence justice is probably as old as prostitution and man’s enjoyment from his marijuana use.  Moreover, this reality is closely akin to the old adage, “might makes right”.  Unfortunately, in this regard we are not of the class referenced.  Thus, we are not able to mold justice to render it more human or even unethically circumvent it, as mentioned.

    It is a given when it come to white/black matters, ingrained color, prejudice trumps reason.  In my view, most whites do not want to reside with blacks in the same community, desire to worship or dine with them, be buried in the same cemetery and certainly not engage in romantic relationships and etc.  Again it is far-fetched and insane to think that the courts or any segment of society is free of partiality predicated on color of skin.

    Theoretically, we as a society do by reason utilize imprisonment as a plausible measure to remove those from the general populace who do harm or present imminent endangerment to society.  We, as the most civilized, technologically advanced with the most powerful military in history, should not make laws to take away human freedom because these are merely laws in-and-of themselves, minus moral judgment. Compare marijuana’s use and consequences to some other substances, legal or illegal.  Alcohol use, especially excessive consumption, produces grave consequences in that it contributes to deaths of tens of thousands and causes untold injuries to millions more.  Also, it is the leading cause of certain types of cancer.  In many alcohol related cases, if not most involving manslaughter the guilty is assessed a lighter sentence than Joshua.  For instance, doctors found guilty of medical malpractice resulting in the death of their patients often times are not more severely punished.  Moreover, many other crimes resulting in severe bodily harm receive less incarceration time.

    Marijuana use has been around for hundreds if not thousands of years without producing known destruction to human welfare.  In the past few decades tens of millions of Americans have smoked marijuana and millions more still partake. Statistically, as much as forty-percent of all adult Americans (They have not moved on to harsher drugs as some contend) smoke or have smoked marijuana.  Many keep or would keep on occasion a few ounces for their own personal use (or “stash”).  “A Gallup Poll in October found forty-four percent of Americans favor full legalization of marijuana –a rise of 13 points since 2000, (“Support for legalizing of Marijuana Grows Rapidly U.S.”,  Karl Vick, The Washington Post. Monday, November 23, 2009).”

    Joshua was a heavy smoker and also consumed substantial amounts of alcohol himself.  His addiction in-and-of itself caused him self-destruction and eventual doom, especially with the commonwealths legal system.  I reiterate the message that history does not provide real horror stories pertaining to consequences of marijuana use.

    Conversely, the use of alcohol, heroin, crack, methamphetamine, cigarette, coffee, Tylenol and other contrabands have had devastating impacts on most, if not all of us at some time.  In regard, we do grave disservice to ourselves and society by denying the truth, thus avoidable destruction and pain are prolonged.  As appalling as it is we devote much valued time, energy, and resources to apprehend and imprison citizens for possession and sale of a few ounces of marijuana when we, as a nation, face far daunting tasks.  Violent crimes remain throughout this land.  Many of us cannot safely walk the streets of our neighborhood during daylight hours let alone at night.  Racial and religious hostilities are still prevalent in the land, just to name a few.  The polls show that there is a real movement to transform laws governing marijuana, but many are still staunchly oriented toward maintaining the ages-old practice of filling jail and prison cells with more and more predominately young black males who have no history of violent crimes.  As a result of these immoral practices they cause these families of black males to struggle and endure unwanted suffering.

    Resources expended to take away the freedom of these blacks would be more wisely used to educate them and others, but; those in the prison/court complex are often opposed and they are the real beneficiaries.  The courts are not sentimental and are impervious to the harm and grief brought upon these individuals and their families as a result of the sentenced due to non-violent crimes.  In Joshua’s case the court also ignored the matter of Joshua’s Attention Deficit Disorder history.  Moreover, six days following his incarceration on February 13, 2009, his girlfriend gave birth to his first son, and our first grandchild.

    As a final assessment, any harmful affect to any individual or society as a result of Joshua’s action is absent.  Conversely, racial animosity and backlash of the systematic imprisonment of black males is a major instrument in widening the wedge in black/white efforts to alleviate vestiges of centuries-old racial inequalities and strife.  In the final analysis, where is the human harm caused by Joshua’s action?  Do his actions warrant, in a moral sense the take-away of his freedom and, consequently the denial of a father for his new-born?

    These marijuana laws are likened to the Poll Tax Laws of the Jim Crow Era in that they disenfranchise millions, particularly blacks.  In the near future, history will show that, again we allowed flawed government policies to damage the image, soul, and fabric of America.  In conclusion, we should all hope sincerely and pray, color-blind to a color-blind god that we be delivered from our heart-held prejudices, long entrenched in hatred to a humane state of consciousness where love dictates.


    Willie Barnes

    80 responses to “A Father’s Lament: Cannabis Prohibition, Race and My Son”

    1. Eric from LA says:

      So, that letter was really well written. I especially liked the line pertaining to our justice system, “Unfortunately, in this regard we are not of the class referenced. Thus, we are not able to mold justice to render it more human or even unethically circumvent it, as mentioned.”.

      Glad you guys posted this. I do have to say I think it’s more a civil liberty issue in the judicial system, rather than a race issue here. I don’t know the specifics though, so who is to say?

      Do we have anyone who can help this man and his son out ?

    2. Brad says:

      While I agree that marijuana laws are dysfunctional as they currently exist, your letter implies that white judges are incapable of being fair as a result of their being white. In addition, at no point do you mention that the 3 marijuana arrests your son incurred were not accidents. They did not just ‘happen’ arbitrarily. They happened because he broke the law. They would have happened to a white person in the same circumstances. Your son has the capacity to make choices, and he made them, and they resulted in his arrest. Perhaps your scrutiny of the skin color of the Arlington county judges should come only after you acknowledge that they are not resposible for your son’s behaviour and that applying a harsher punishment is likely because your son made the same mistake 3 times in complete defiance of the the law.

      [Editor’s note: Whether a person gets busted a single time of three times, or is sentenced by a white or black judge, cannabis prohibition laws are a waste of public resources, unequally applied to minorities and breaks families apart.]

    3. Jason says:

      2. Brad. Your racist. Common white person response here, divert the real issue to another issue which is irrelevant but seems like it has substantial merit enough to avoid the real, more horrifying truth. Bravo to you and your simple mindedness. FYI I AM WHITE.

      US Govt. is starting to look more like the fall of Rome with every passing day….

    4. funk says:

      im confused as to why this was put up? yes, it is a well written letter but im wondering what exactly he is trying to get at? his son was arrested 3 times for selling 4 ounces or less each time… i dont see anything race involved in this whole story except white judges? how is this a race issue, was it because it was really well written or what? yea his son was arrested, that sucks. it was for weed, that sucks even more. but he was arrested THREE times, you would think after the first, he would at least stop selling, and keep some at home for a stash, but he was caught selling it 3 times, i mean black or white, the outcome isnt going to be favorable??? if anything, this is another sad story of a young mans life being ruined by our government with these unjust laws, but not a race issue

      [Editor’s note: Maybe you missed one of the salient points: Minorities are arrested at higher rates than whites (despite the fact they consume less cannabis), prosecuted at even higher rates, and, unlike whites, get incarcerated at truly disparate rates.]

    5. Joel says:

      I have to say that I agree with the gentleman in regards to the criminal justice system. I’ve been self-medicating for almost 12 years, and I thank God every day I haven’t had the beautiful chance encounter with the law yet. My vehicle was searched once (I admitted to the officer that I had been smoking earlier that day) but other than that, nothing. I can see the bias on a regular basis. And its FAR WORSE here in Texas than any other place out there. You can almost walk up to any minority here and ask if they’ve been arrested, and I would say 9 out 10 of them would say yes for possession charges.

      The point is very simple, cannabis charges are… for lack of a better word… insane. They waste government resources, burden our society with a plethora of non-violent “offenders” (which, by the way, cost about $30,000 a year to house, clothe, feed, provide A+ medical care, dental, cable tv, plenty of exercise and a higher education). I don’t even make that much a year. And there are times when I wonder where my next meal is coming from.

      The War on Drugs is a War on the American people. Pay attention the next time you hear about a drug bust, or Operation Pot Bust which cost $300 million dollars, 4 years of clandestine surveillance and 1000s of man hours to result in a bust of only 500 lbs of cannabis. Which, if its just Mexican dirt weed, amounted to a street value of only $225,000.

      Is there justice in that?

    6. enfinite5 says:

      11% of blacks smoke weed??? I call bullshit…every single black person I have ever met in my life smokes weed, All my black friends who have kids smoke weed in front of there kids…..its nothing to them. LEGALIZE IT!

    7. Jim says:

      While I think Willie sometimes sees things that aren’t there and doesn’t see things that are there, the fact remains that incarcerating someone, especially a young person, for what are essentially victimless crimes is very wrong. What if, during his incarceration, he experiences things which damage his soul so that he cannot enter the afterlife when he dies. Doing that to him is a sin which I believe will condemn those who incarcerate these young people to a miserable afterlife.

    8. jzt says:


      He realizes that. What hes saying is that he was given a harsher sentence because he isn’t white. It’s most likely true and its horrible but most of the “white trash racists” in America are playing major roles in the government and it sucks.

    9. Mile Hi Dave says:

      After reading this very well-written letter, I felt I must respond. As a “white” male who has had a run in with the law a time or two for marijuana, I have seen exactly what this gntleman is writing about in person. As recently as 6 months ago, I was in front of the judge for smoking in public (I am a registered medical marijuana user), public being my front porch. While waiting my turn, I noticed some of the same sentencing flaws based on race, here in Denver. Whites, now that I look back on it, were given mostly small fines and blacks/hispanics were given probation or county time. Granted, I don’t know any of the histories of any of the folks I witnessed this happening to, but I do know that the courts disproportionately gave fines to the whites and more severe punishments to minorities. Let’s all be honest with each other, we have all heard of movie stars, atheletes and other celebrity types that have been slapped on the wrist fo far worse crimes – Downey Jr(Drugs-Multiple times) & Nolte (Multiple DUI’s)to name a couple.

      If, we as a society, must incarcerate minor criminals, the sentences must be equal for all -white/black, male/female, rich/poor – and the only way this happens is if we take the sentencing away from the Judges and make it a flat sentence, no different than a parking violation. Then again, why is this plant, that has been used for thousands of years, still being vilified?

    10. Song says:

      A well written letter – a bit verbose and over my head but I feel the authors truth.

      *@brad* Is all you can say is that the guy broke the law? Lmao you know that at one time the LAW said it was perfectly fine to have human SLAVES and the same LAW forbid women from voting??? haha you may want to pick up a history book next time and pass on the xbox.

      Here’s to the love revolution where we can do what we want and need – free from persecution!