The world-famous primatologist discusses her new book, which is back on shelves after some controversy.
Since the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington, well-known people have been falling over themselves to admit they once smoked.
Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote that while he and his friends enjoyed smoking marijuana when they were younger, they grew out of it and he now believes legalizing recreational marijuana is a bad idea.
“My view is that I don’t get so hyped up about marijuana use, but I do think that government should lean against it,” he said on NPR’s All Things Considered. “It’s going to lead to lower prices, it’s going to eliminate the legal worries that some people have and so it will probably lead to more marijuana use.”
But Slate columnist Tressie McMillan Cottom says David Brooks and others are overlooking something — how keeping marijuana illegal disproportionately puts more minorities in jail or out of a job.
Consequences For Black Men
“There’s a huge amount of discrepancy between the kind of fantasy world David Brooks is painting of young white teenagers who are using marijuana recreationally, and how it becomes truly a gateway into the judicial system for African-American and Hispanic men,” Cottom told Here & Now’s Robin Young. “Once they are in the criminal justice system, they are more likely to be detained until their arraignment, and they are more likely to serve jail time.”
A report from the ACLU shows that blacks are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, although they self-report using it about the same rate as whites self-report using marijuana.
Reduced Access To Education, Jobs
“I don’t think people realize how far reaching the penalties are now for any type of criminal conviction, no matter how minor,” Cottom said.
Cottom says having a drug conviction dramatically reduces access to education and job opportunities. Since 1998, an applicant for federal financial aid has to disclose if he or she has any drug convictions. Similarly, many entry level jobs require the applicant to disclose any drug offenses. This often rules them out for aid or a job.
Cottom experienced this first hand when she worked at a cosmetology school and helped applicants fill out financial aid forms.
“The students would sit across from me and they would get to that box, and they would ask me, what should they say here?” Cottom said. “Well, it’s a federal form. You don’t lie on a federal form … We know that after changes in 1998, that we saw a decline of students who checked the box being approved for student aid. But that doesn’t even capture the students who just gave up on the process after they see that box. And that was the kind of experience I would see in my office.”
A Double Standard
Cottom says she is not surprised that David Brooks’ experience with recreational marijuana use — and the flippancy with which its legalization has been treated in the media — is different than the experience of the people she encountered at the cosmetology school.
“Most of those people who we see giggling about [marijuana] and bringing it to the pop culture imagination still don’t look like us,” Cottom said. “We knew that our white peers could get away with it at their parties and could smoke it while walking down a public street, and could have a totally different relationship to marijuana than an African-American could.”
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
Well, the recent legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington state has certainly given TV hosts something to giggle about.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PIERS MORGAN TONIGHT")
PIERS MORGAN: I'm going to make a shocking revelation here. I've tried cannabis when I was a younger lad.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MORNING JOE")
JOE SCARBOROUGH: Come on, man he smokes it all the time. He goes up to the NBC gym smoking.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TODAY")
SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: So much weed I wonder if there's a contact high going on at that (unintelligible)....
YOUNG: The "Today" show, "Morning Joe" and Piers Morgan, who started us off. And New York Times columnist David Brooks confessed that he loved marijuana when he was young but eventually saw it as a moral failing. As he told NPR, he doesn't want to see it legalized.
DAVID BROOKS: My view is that I don't get so hyped up about marijuana use, but I do think government should sort of lean against it, and I'm sort of against what's happened in Colorado in part because the legalization, one of the things it does, it's probably going to lead to much lower prices, it's going to eliminate the legal worries that some people have and so it will probably lead to more marijuana use.
YOUNG: But Slate magazine's Tressie McMillan Cottom says David Brooks and others are overlooking how keeping marijuana illegal disproportionately puts more minorities in jail or out of a job. Let's spend a few minutes with her today. Tressie, welcome.
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Thank you for having me.
YOUNG: And let's be clear. You are not talking about the other discrepancy that everybody's been paying attention to that more blacks are arrested and serve longer jail times for crack cocaine use than whites do for cocaine. You are talking about marijuana use.
COTTOM: Correct. I mean, there is a very good reason for us to pay attention to the discrepancy in sentencing between crack and cocaine, and there's a lot of fascinating work that has been done in that area. But as it pertained to this story, the way that it had been construed as this issue of, you know, sort of moral failings, you know, the indiscretion of youth really ignored how strict the penalties have become for using and being arrested for using marijuana and how those effects are disproportionately affecting minority - particularly minority men.
YOUNG: Well, the ACLU released a report last summer based on federal arrest data but also some self-reporting. Give us some more of the stats of the arrests of minorities as opposed to whites.
COTTOM: Yes, so African-Americans are three and a half times more likely to be arrested for the possession of marijuana while they report on average about the same amount, they self-report using the drug about the same amount that whites do. So there's a huge amount of discrepancy between the kind of fantasy work that David Brooks is painting of, you know, young white teenagers who are using marijuana recreationally, and how it becomes truly a gateway into necessarily just harder drugs but a gateway into the judicial system for African-American and Hispanic men.
YOUNG: Here are some more of the ACLU stats. In Illinois, African-Americans make up just 15 percent of the population but account for 58 percent of the marijuana possession arrests. In Alabama, African-Americans make up less than 25 percent of the population but 60 percent of the marijuana possession arrests. And let's just stay with that word there for a second: arrests. How do you respond to Fox TV's Bill O'Reilly, who says nobody's really being arrested?
COTTOM: Well, I mean, it's a typical type of thing where certainly if you are Bill O'Reilly or someone who comes from where Bill O'Reilly comes from, who has the benefits of the - Bill O'Reilly's wealth and privilege, for you it is quite true that you are unlikely to be arrested for possessing marijuana.
However, the reality is for someone who is African-American, and increasingly also for Hispanics, drug possession, marijuana possession, even in small amounts, can lead to a misdemeanor arrest and conviction because not only are minorities more likely to be arrested, but once they are in the criminal justice system, they are more likely to be detained until their arraignment, and they are more likely to serve jail time for the possession.
YOUNG: Well, here's the state from FBI, according to Media Matters. Marijuana possession and - possession, not sale, accounted for 42.4 percent of all drug arrests in 2012, and as you and the ACLU have been pointing out, many of those arrests are disproportionately minorities.
Well, so take us further. As you say, this puts minorities into the criminal justice system. Connect that with their inability to then get jobs.
COTTOM: Well, one of the main mediators between the experience in the criminal justice system and the inability to get jobs is the access to education. And I don't think people realize how far reaching the penalties are now for any type of criminal conviction, no matter how minor.
And again, possession of very small amounts of marijuana is pretty minor, relatively speaking, but carries a pretty serious penalty that can follow you through life. In 1998, changes were made to the law that regulates access to federal student aid. So student loan money and things like Pell Grants, they said that even a minor drug conviction would bar you from having access to federal student aid.
And I might add after you have served, after you've settled all your fines, you were still barred access to federal student aid.
YOUNG: So it's like a double penalty.
YOUNG: And by the way, you point out that that legal restriction in the '90s came under the I-did-not-inhale President Bill Clinton. That's Tressie McMillan Cottom of Slate on minorities and marijuana. We'll hear more in one minute, HERE AND NOW.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
YOUNG: It's HERE AND NOW, and we're looking at the debate over the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington. High-profile people like New York Times columnist David Brooks have admitted to smoking when they were young, Brooks saying he doesn't want it legalized now because it will encourage marijuana use, and it doesn't nurture a moral ecology, makes it harder to be the people we want to be. Others are citing concerns about health and addiction.
But we're talking with writer Tressie McMillan Cottom, who says that they are all overlooking her concern. She says keeping marijuana illegal disproportionately puts members of her community, blacks and other minorities, in jail.
Now Fox News' Bill O'Reilly says he doesn't think anyone is arrested for smoking marijuana. Here he is debating with Fox commentator Juan Williams.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM)
JUAN WILLIAMS: This is soft drug use. Why are you arresting and giving this kid a record, especially minority kids disproportionately. They're the ones who get arrested.
BILL O'REILLY: Only dealers, Juan. There's no mass arrest of users.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No users arrested?
O'REILLY: No, they get a ticket, Juan.
YOUNG: Well, according to the FBI there were 1.5 million drug arrests in 2011, and of those about 750,000 were for marijuana. And according to the ACLU, many of those arrests were disproportionately minorities. We're looking at the consequences. Before the break, we heard about a 1998 law that restricts those with drug convictions from getting federal student loans.
Tressie McMillan Cottom says she saw the result of that when she was working on a career in cosmetology school. And Tressie, you met a number of men trying to get into a cosmetology program so they could be barbers. But then when they applied for these federal student loans, they came across a box on the form. What is the box?
COTTOM: The box says do you have any drug convictions. And the students who would come to see me by and large, that was true for them like it is again for a lot of low-wage workers in this country. So we not only have race happening, we have gender happening, we have some class issues happening here.
And the way we work in this country has changed pretty dramatically over the past couple of decades, particularly after the recession. Low-skill workers are having a very difficult time finding anything remotely like full employment. Well, one of the first things that we tell those people to do is to go to school to get some kind of training.
Well, almost all the people who would be inclined to do that type of work need some additional training, and they would also need support in paying for it. But then you get that form, all right, and you fill out all the information, and the students would sit across from me, and they would get to that box, and they would ask me what should they say here.
Well, it's a federal form, right? You don't lie on a federal form. That can come with its own penalties down the road. And so once they would check that box, if they checked the box, so we can capture how many people, how many students checked the box and then were denied student aid.
And we know that after changes in 1998 that we saw a decline of students who checked the box being approved for student aid. But that doesn't even capture the students who just gave up on the process once they saw the box. And that was the kind of experience I would see in my office.
YOUNG: Well, and that has to do with aid, but I'm thinking, too, that many of these jobs might have the same box, as opposed to, let's say, a white collar job that would not ask you that question. Is that true?
COTTOM: Yeah, we've got this perverse relationship between the greater your level of responsibility, the fewer the hoops that you need to jump through to get the job, right? So you have to pass all of these background checks and increasingly things like credit checks, background checks to be a cashier but not to be the CEO.
And so there are a series of movements, however, to remove the box from employment applications particularly because research shows very little correlation between job preparedness and job performance and background and credit checks.
YOUNG: But Tressie, a devil's advocate question. Obviously you're concerned about the minority community. Do you have any concern that legalizing marijuana will negatively impact that community?
COTTOM: Well, I think that - so what I think people are asking when they say that is that legalizing it somehow will be different from the experience that we already have of using it, right? So there's something about making it legal that will increase the use.
YOUNG: And people are citing that concern. They're saying that legalizing it lowers the cost, as David Brooks said, and spreads the use. And we're already seeing in Colorado studies showing that kids in particular, especially when it's sold from medical dispensaries, they are interpreting that it's healthy for them.
COTTOM: Well, I think that - so what public health advocates point out is that drug use is a very complicated experience, particularly for adolescents. And I think that underneath that is a concern about what makes up and what comprises the experience of addiction. And those are really two different things.
What we do know is that there are not a lot of services to people who have been arrested for drug conviction and possession to actually help them deal with the addiction that drives the drug use. And those may be two entirely different social policy issues. That we have conflated them and made them the same through legislation is just something that we've chosen to do, but it doesn't have to be that way.
You could still have community, family, school-level support to help people make better decisions about addiction and to deal with addiction, both the physical and the emotional problem of addiction, without criminalizing marijuana.
YOUNG: Let me ask you something. Have you known someone who has been jailed or arrested for marijuana use?
YOUNG: How do you think they might be thinking, or given that, how are you feeling about what seems to be this unbelievable shift just in the past few weeks. You see morning show hosts giggling about reporters standing in Colorado, asking them, you know, how does the air, are you getting a contact high?
I mean, there's this contrast between a reality you're describing of people being arrested and people being coy and joking about it.
COTTOM: Yeah, and you know what, and that contrast has actually always existed. So most of the people - and we have - I have actually talked to people that I know personally who have firsthand experience with being arrested and certainly being stopped and searched and dealing with low-level marijuana possession issues, most of whom who are now like me graduate students or academics or researchers, right?
So again this huge disconnect from who we think is kind of caught in the snare and the reality of it. And almost all of them, this is not new, this idea that what most of those people who we see giggling about it and bringing it to the pop culture imagination still don't look like us.
And so there's always been this idea that we knew that our white peers could get away with it at their parties and could smoke it while walking down a public street and could have a totally different kind of relationship to marijuana than African-Americans could.
So I think the people that I know were blase about that, that of course there are going to be differences in how it's understood and portrayed.
YOUNG: Do you think that the reason that more blacks are disproportionately arrested for using dope is because more blacks are disproportionately stopped for being black?
COTTOM: Yeah, so I think what we know about the criminal justice system is that discretion plays a powerful role in racial discrepancies and arrest. So I think that what happens is that while - laws can be on the books, but there can be a great deal of variation in how much discretion officers are given to exercise it and that what they are more likely to do is to exercise their discretion in favor of people who they don't perceive as being inherently criminal or bad, and they are more likely to exercise their discretion to detain and to search people who they think are more likely.
And so I think that the pot possession thing just becomes sort of - we talk about it being a gateway drug. I think it's also a gateway type of a legislation, right, because what it does is it kind of gives the legal cover for authorities to exercise discretion that they were disinclined to exercise anyway.
YOUNG: That's Tressie McMillan Cottom. She covers higher education and pop culture for Slate and is also a doctoral candidate in sociology at Emory University. Tressie, thanks so much.
COTTOM: Thank you for having me.
YOUNG: And we've been getting a lot of response from you on Facebook. Dan Moit(ph) writes prohibition always serves the power elite. Susan Stang(ph) says marijuana should be legalized to bring money to fund addiction programs. Roger Parmeli(ph) writes it should be legal, and then everyone should stay away from it. We'd love to hear your thoughts at hereandnow.org, at Facebook.com/hereandnowradio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.