Three Renton-area, African American pastors have given their endorsement to legalizing, taxing and regulating marijuana for adults.
The Rev. Leslie Braxton of New Beginnings Christian Fellowship, Rev. Carl Livingston of Kingdom Christian Center and Rev. Steve E. Baber of Skyway United Methodist Church announced their support of Initiative 502 mid-June.
Staff from the “Yes on I-502” campaign approached the pastors, because some knew the pastors were outspoken on issues related to legalizing marijuana.
The pastors all agree that the criminalization of the drug has contributed to the disproportionally high numbers of incarcerated African Americans and other minorities.
“It’s no longer enough to say the War on Drugs has been a failure,” said Braxton in a press release. “We have to recognize that it has done damage, especially to black Americans, and we have to change course.
“Marijuana law enforcement has become a pretext for pushing people into the criminal-justice system where they get branded with criminal records that turn them into second-class citizens facing additional barriers to education and employment.”
The pastors are trying to inform their congregations on this issue.
Livingston has tried to educate his members – about 70 who attend his church – with information for and against I-502, but with more information in support of the measure.
So far, he has not received any negative feedback from his congregation because of his endorsement.
Livingston bases his support on studies that go back to the Nixon administration that say marijuana is no more a health risk than cigarettes and drinking whiskey.
“Although, I consider cigarettes and heavy drinking of alcohol to be spiritual, medical and economic ills,” he said. “It does not mean that I feel that as a matter of policy that society should criminalize (marijuana).”
Not enough attention has been paid to the findings of authors and scholars on the subject of high incarceration rates, Livingston said.
He cites author Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” as proof the evidence is out there.
The I-502 campaign states in its literature that “In Washington, an African American adult is three times as likely as a white person to be arrested for marijuana possession, three times as likely to be charged, and three times as likely to be convicted, despite the fact that white Washingtonians use marijuana at a slightly higher rate.”
In March 2011 a Seattle task force released a “Preliminary Report on Race and Washington’s Criminal Justice System” that points to the same occurrence.
Livingston references these sources to say that while the state prides itself on being inclusive, it is one of the worst when it comes to the number of incarcerated African Americans.
A different approach must be taken with people who use marijuana, said Baber.
“It’s better to work with people who have these kinds of issues than criminalize (marijuana),” he said.
Baber has a congregation just under 100 members but has not received any feedback from them on his endorsement.
He acknowledges that not all pastors agree on this subject.
The Rev. Dr. Linda Smith of SKY Urban Empowerment and Transformation Center is also African American, but shares a slightly different opinion on the issue.
While she does not oppose her colleagues’ endorsement of I-502, she said she doesn’t feel legalizing, taxing and regulating marijuana for adults will change the underlying issues affecting the African American community.
“Because employers will still have the right to drug test, and police will still be able to arrest based on being under the influence and children will still be exposed to drug use in the home,” she wrote in an email. “Therefore, the problem especially in the African American community remains, which is at a much deeper moral and spiritual level.”
Voters will get to decide Nov. 6, when I-502 appears on the general election ballot.