Opinion - Jimmy Carter's wrong on marijuana

Effort to legalize marijuana isn't just about people getting high - it's about fixing an unfair system

Among modern liberals — in the South in particular — former president Jimmy Carter is our very own white-haired, rheumy-eyed moral compass. Especially when we agree with him.

Like last March, when he told the Huffington Post that he's cool with gay marriage. Even better, the longtime Southern Baptist (it's since been reported that he parted ways with the church) was out promoting a book he wrote about the Bible and based his approval on another J.C.'s notable lesson, albeit by way of omission: "Jesus never said a word about homosexuality. In all of his teachings about multiple things — he never said that gay people should be condemned."

In 2011, Carter denounced the death penalty as "unjust and outdated" after the state put to death tenuously convicted murderer and liberal cause célèbre Troy Davis. And just half a year ago, everyone sparked up with self-righteous élan when, during a Captain Planet Foundation Forum in Atlanta, Carter said he was OK with the legalization of marijuana.

More specifically, he said: "I'm in favor of it. I think it's OK. I don't think it's going to happen in Georgia yet, but I think we can watch and see what happens in the state of Washington for instance around Seattle and let the American government and let the American people see does it cause a serious problem or not."

When a former Leader of the Free World™ — an elderly devout Christian, at that — makes these kinds of progressive declarations it's cause for celebration. Like, maybe his common sense will rub off on people who aren't card-carrying members of the choir to which he's preaching.

Then, earlier this month, the record we were spinning on the old hi-fi at our Carter-sanctioned basement drughead party skipped. Apparently, the 39th president doesn't support the legalization of marijuana after all. According to a press release from Project SAM, former Congressman Patrick Kennedy's anti-legal-weed organization, Carter went on the record saying, in no uncertain terms, "I do not favor legalization. We must do everything we can to discourage marijuana use, as we do now with tobacco and excessive drinking."

And it gets worse: Carter doesn't even support decriminalizing marijuana use and possession, as most people were under the impression that he did — and has — since the time he was in office. He thinks people caught with marijuana should be arrested, but rerouted to treatment rather than imprisoned.

It seems pretty important to point out that the Daily Beast blog on which the release was posted belongs to Newsweek editor and conservative speechwriter David Frum, who also happens to be a Project SAM board member. Someone with political insight — hey, maybe Frum himself — recognized the value of getting a champion of liberal causes like Carter to go to bat for the other side for a change.

Carter's statements in the press release — which appear to be carefully crafted to jibe with Project SAM's agenda — focus on marijuana as an agent of intoxication, a substance that should be kept away from kids and people operating heavy machinery. Smoking any quantity of marijuana is on par with "excessive drinking."

And just like that, the voice of reason sounds pretty tone deaf.

What Carter's comments ignore is that the marijuana legalization movement isn't just about fighting for people's right to get high — it's fighting against a system that's proven rife with racial inequality. According to a piece in Esquire (and pursuant to accepted logic), black people and white people are using and dealing drugs in equal measure, but nationwide, 13 times more black people go to jail for drug crimes. And it's even worse in Atlanta. WSB-TV reported last year, after reviewing APD records, that an insane 93 percent of the people the department arrested for marijuana possession were black. Only seven percent were white.

That story also pointed out that Georgia spends in excess of $300 million to "police, prosecute, and jail" in marijuana cases.

Last summer here in Chicago, where I now live, possession of a small quantity of marijuana became a ticketable offense. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the city's aldermen have been reluctant to call the measure "decriminalization" — basically, in certain circumstances, an officer can issue a ticket rather than make an arrest to save the time and money it would take to process the person. Still, 18,000 people were arrested in 2012 for misdemeanor pot possession while only 380 tickets were issued (granted, the law went into effect in August). Most drug arrests were made in predominately black neighborhoods.

These stats are a lot scarier and more difficult to ignore than the prospect of a few of our dear, sweet children smoking a joint on the playground. Especially because they're going to do that whether pot is legal or not. C'mon, Jimmy. We want you back on our side.

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