By HARPER JEAN TOBIN
Across the country, decriminalizing marijuana is on the agenda of lawmakers. Colorado and Washington State made history by legalizing marijuana, and this month the D.C. Council gave an initial nod to turn marijuana possession from a crime to something more like a parking ticket.
Other states are also considering legislation. Much of the conversation has focused on the relative safety of marijuana compared to alcohol, and on the fact black people are far more likely to be arrested and charged for marijuana despite using pot at similar rates to white people.
What does this have to do with transgender and transgender people of color? A lot. While we don’t have specific figures on marijuana, we know that trans people—especially trans people of color—are disproportionately affected by our country’s continuing problems of mass incarceration, police profiling and harassment, barriers to jobs and housing that are exacerbated by a criminal record, and other critical problems that are being neglected in favor of spending on drug enforcement and prisons.
While changing marijuana laws will not cure these problems, we believe it is a step in the right direction.
Here’s why NCTE supports decriminalizing marijuana:
• Decriminalization would help reduce disproportionate incarceration of transgender people. The 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS) found that fully 1 in 8 transgender people, more than 1 in 5 transgender women, and nearly half (47 percent) of black transgender people have been incarcerated. Trans people, like their non-trans counterparts, are overwhelmingly arrested and incarcerated for minor, nonviolent offenses—a reality confirmed by the NTDS finding that most formerly incarcerated transgender people have served misdemeanor sentences of less than one year, with a majority serving less than six months. Decriminalization would mean fewer trans people needlessly incarcerated.
• Decriminalization would reduce barriers to employment, housing, education and public services. Having a criminal record for a minor offense like marijuana possession can mean being barred from many jobs, public housing, student loans and other key supports that individuals need to get back on their feet after exiting prison. Even if a person avoids incarceration, a conviction can mean immediate eviction from their home or losing your legal immigration status. And many employers will not even consider hiring someone with any criminal record. For trans people, this means more barriers on top of widespread anti-trans discrimination.
• Decriminalization would send fewer transgender people to dangerous jails and prisons. Prisons and jails are inhumane and traumatizing places for anyone, and they are especially dangerous for transgender people. Transgender women are still routinely housed with men, where they are 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other inmates.
• Decriminalization would reduce some of the harms of “stop and frisk.” More than one-third (35 percent) of trans people have been harassed or face discriminatory treatment by police officers—often simply for the crime of “walking while trans.” When stopped and frisked, marijuana is the most common thing people are arrested for. And, suspicion of marijuana is one of the main justifications for stops of youth of color. While much of the police harassment of trans people is based on targeting trans women as suspected or actual sex workers, decriminalizing marijuana would mean one less reason for trans people, especially trans youth of color, to fear harassment or arrest when they walk down the street.
• Decriminalization could free up scarce resources to address the real issues of homelessness, poverty, healthcare and education. Trans people face stark health disparities, are twice as likely to be unemployed, four times more likely to live in extreme poverty, and face violence from their schools to the streets to their own homes. We spend untold billions arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating people for marijuana possession. Though it won’t happen without advocacy, every dollar saved could be redirected by policymakers into addressing real community needs that should benefit trans and other marginalized people.
• Decriminalization would move us closer to addressing drug use as a public health issue. Substance abuse presents real issues for the trans community. More than one quarter (26 percent) of trans people report having used drugs or alcohol to cope with the stress of discrimination, and many studies have found LGBT disparities in substance use and abuse. But voluntary treatment and support for those with problematic drug use is the right response, not criminalization.
NCTE has added its voice to the civil rights, faith, harm reduction, and public health voices supporting decriminalization before the D.C. Council. While NCTE continues to focus on issues where our trans-specific expertise is critical, we will also support common-sense marijuana reform that will benefit our community and other marginalized communities.
Harper Jean Tobin is director of policy for the National Center for Transgender Equality.