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OP-ED: Who are the real criminals?

Picture of Dayvon Love

Dayvon Love

Director of Public Policy
Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle

During the 2023 Maryland General Assembly, LBS focused mostly on dealing with the criminal justice elements of cannabis legalization. We have been working to prohibit the use of odor as the basis for searches from law enforcement and to remove criminal penalties for possession of cannabis about the 2.5 oz civil amount. This should be low-hanging fruit in the context of the fact that Maryland is going to legalize the recreational use of cannabis. This is particularly important given the fact that law enforcement has used cannabis prohibition policies as a central component of their public safety strategy. Law enforcement has testified against both of these policies and has testified that the smell of cannabis and its criminalization have been key tools for law enforcement. This begs the question, what is the connection between cannabis (and drug trafficking more broadly) and violence in Maryland?

As a person who lives in west Baltimore and knows people that are impacted by violence, my anecdotal observation is that much of the violence is not the result of drug trafficking. Much of it tends to be very dynamic interpersonal disputes that spiral out of control. Again, this is my own anecdotal experience as someone who is connected to working-class Black people who live in communities impacted by violence and my close association with people who work to address violence in my community. Over the past few years, pushing back against mandatory minimums, sentence enhancements, and advocating for cannabis legalization, it seemed to me that the opposition (law enforcement) would characterize drug trafficking as a central driver of violence in the community. I didn’t realize how central this notion was until working on cannabis legalization. 

I began looking for available data on the circumstances surrounding homicides in Baltimore/Maryland and to compare it to the discourse being had by law enforcement about public safety. There are two particular data points that I found that provide some level of clarity on this issue. The first is from a presentation from the Baltimore City’s Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on January 17, 2023 where they reveal that in the western district only 14.5% of homicides in 2018 & 2019 were related to drug trafficking. The Maryland Commission on Sentencing found that 25% of gun-related convictions in 2019 were related to drug offenses (it’s probably safe to assume that not all drug offenses are related to trafficking, which means 25% is generous). It seems that the lasting impact of the war on drugs is that law enforcement has structured its culture, operations, and infrastructure around the notion that drug trafficking is a central driver of violence. This is not to say that there is no context where drug trafficking has been a significant driver of violence, but based on my own anecdotal experience and the data mentioned above, developing a public safety strategy based on that notion does not square with the actual reality on the ground. This probably provides some explanation as to the failure of law enforcement to be effective deterrents to violence. 

I know I am not the first person to make the observation of this mismatch regarding how law enforcement functions from the perspective of drug trafficking being central to addressing violence in spite of what the actual reality is on the ground. The fact that this society is structured on the system of white supremacy becomes particularly relevant because of the racialized notions of criminality and pathology that are projected onto the working class and poor Black people. The caricature of the dangerous Black drug dealer that flows from the Black brute stereotype makes those who are most harmed by the criminal justice system at best invisible and at worse acceptable collateral damage.  

Drug dealers come in many forms. White college students, doctors that get kickbacks for prescribing certain drugs, and police officers who rob other drug dealers and sell those drugs. But the ones we tend to focus on are Black drug dealers in majority Black working-class communities. If law enforcement and prosecutors (and many people in general for that matter) were honest, they would say that these drug dealers are more dangerous than the others. And they would point to data regarding violent crime committed by Black drug dealers compared to the other drug dealers I mentioned earlier. This would be used to justify the caricature of the inherently violent Black drug dealer and why the focus on the war on drugs is so important. But there are a few observations that make this line of thought fall apart. People working in cash industries and carrying a lot of cash have more incentive to have guns to protect themselves. Whether it’s drugs or any other cash industry, a person is vulnerable to being robbed in ways that people who don’t work in cash industries are not. 

Because selling drugs is illegal, there is no ability to rely on law enforcement to protect them against people trying to rob them. So, in order to sell drugs, it requires having to use violence to deter being robbed in the same way that law enforcement uses violence when deemed necessary to deter robberies or any other kinds of crimes. In other words, drug dealers in places like Baltimore, for the most part, are not these inherently violent people who don’t have regard for their communities. These are folks who are involved in an inherently violent and illegal business and must take protecting themselves into their own hands. It is easier to conjure up this notion of these inherently violent Black people who are destroying the community as the source of a majority of the problems Black people face. It makes it easier to ignore the fact that the reason Black people in working-class communities engage in drug trafficking is because too many middle- and upper-class Black people have abandoned any meaningful obligation to the Black masses and leave our communities with very few other credible access to economic opportunities. We should look for ways to end drug trafficking so that people have safer ways to make money, which means we need to bring economic opportunity to communities impacted by the war on drugs. Criminalizing cannabis in a state that is about to legalize recreational use is a setup for weaponizing the criminal justice system against Black people in Maryland.

Blaming Black drug dealers for society’s problems makes it easy for white society to ignore their role in the conditions that produce violence in places like Baltimore and across the country. The interpersonal disputes that lead to so much of the violence that happens are the result of our community being injected with the societal messages and images of Black pathology and notions of inherent Black criminality. In other words, we don’t have the knowledge of self that is needed to cultivate the love of self that is needed to practice greater care for ourselves and each other. When Black people attempt to build the institutions and programs needed to address this, we are often confronted with charges of “reverse racism” and inundated with white-led and/or white-adjacent programming that focuses on trying to “fix” Black people. When we advocate for the government to provide resources for those who are susceptible to being pulled into the drug trade, this is perceived as rewarding criminals for their bad behavior. 

The biggest criminals in this country are those who continue to benefit from the dehumanization of Black people and other colonized people, and those who continue to be complicit with maintaining the status quo. The suffering of the masses of Black people is the stepping stone for many non-profit, government, and academic careers. Advancing notions of inherent Black criminality get police budgets funded, prosecutors and local representatives elected to public office. Stories of Black suffering and violence get people television series and movie opportunities. Unless you are working to bring about the development and support of institutions needed for Black people to be able to practice sovereignty, push for the radical redistribution of resources required to address the condition of working-class Black people, and fight against policies that dehumanize our community, you are an accomplice to one of the greatest criminal enterprises in human history, America.

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