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Pete's Pot Flop

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For a brief, contentious moment, cannabis took center stage at the Feb. 7 Democratic presidential debate in New Hampshire when mayor-turned-maybe-kind-sorta frontrunner Pete Buttigieg was pressed about disproportionate drug arrest rates for black residents during his tenure in South Bend, Indiana.

"Mayor Buttigieg, under your leadership as mayor, a black resident in South Bend, Indiana, was four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white resident," began moderator and ABC News correspondent Linsey Davis. "And that disparity increased in South Bend after you took office. When talking about the problem in national terms, you've called it 'evidence of systemic racism.' But you were mayor for eight years, so weren't you, in effect, the head of the system? And how do you explain that increase in black arrests under your leadership?"

Buttigieg initially deflected, saying that the "reality is" that under his watch drug arrests in South Bend were lower than the national average, which, of course, doesn't address the disproportionate rate at which black residents were arrested for cannabis possession. He then went on to reiterate that "systemic racism has penetrated to every level of our system" and that his city was "not immune," before touting his plans to "take up reforms that end incarceration as a response to possession" and expunge records of those with past convictions.

Davis then redirected him to her question, which was about the racial disparity in arrests during his tenure in South Bend.

"And again, the overall rate was lower ..." Buttigieg again asserted, appearing to offer that as a counterpoint, as if the fact that fewer people were affected overall made up for the disproportionate impact on black residents.

Davis pressed again, to which Buttigieg explained that one of the strategies his police department adopted was to target drug enforcement where there "was gun violence and gang violence, which was slaughtering so many in our community, burying teenagers, disproportionately black teenagers. ... These things are all connected."

It's no secret that — at least according to the polls — people of color have been leery of Mayor Pete. A Quinnipiac University poll published Feb. 10 found he garnered only 4 percent support among black Democrats, adding to a growing trend of polling data. And while Buttigieg has said that's because voters of color are "laser-focused" on beating Trump in November and just aren't yet convinced he's a viable candidate, his debate answers hint at a much deeper issue.

There are plenty of ways Buttigieg could have responded to what appears to be a very valid question that essentially asked him to address why, despite the progressive campaign talk, his police department appears to have disproportionately targeted black residents for marijuana enforcement. He could have said eight years was simply not enough time to strip the department of the institutionalized societal bias and racism that accumulated over the course of centuries. He could have noted that state and federal laws that criminalize widespread conduct are rife for biased enforcement. He could have talked about how mayors of smallish cities have limited power, which is why he's running for president.

Instead, he chose to say, in essence, that the situation wasn't that bad because fewer white people were impacted. Then, when pressed, he intoned that black people arrested under his watch for simple possession charges were really involved with violent, murderous gangs. It's a tired trope and a pretty good reminder of how communities of color have disproportionately felt the brunt — and the stigma — of the war on drugs.

Colorado State University, meanwhile, just claimed Humboldt State University's arguable birthright as the first college in the United States to offer a major in cannabis.

State officials approved on Feb. 7 a bachelor of science degree program in Cannabis Biology and Chemistry as "a pro-active response to a rapidly changing national scene regarding the cannabis plant."

Lost in much of the rightful handwringing that came Feb. 10 when President Donald Trump proposed a $4.8 trillion national budget that would increase the national debt while enacting some $300 billion in cuts to safety net programs, including Medicare and Medicaid, was a proposal to end existing protections for state medical cannabis programs.

Since 2014, all federal appropriations legislation has contained a rider preventing the Department of Justice from using its funds to prevent states from "implementing their own laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession or cultivation of medical marijuana."

Like the rest of Trump's budget proposal, Congress is likely to round-file this one with little discussion. But it is something to keep in mind the next time you hear the president talking about how he believes in medical cannabis or supports states' rights. Because, you know, he lies.

Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor and prefers he/him pronouns. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or thad@northcoastjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.com.

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