Someone took 4/20 seriously this year:

Dozens of people marched Saturday through Puerto Rico’s capital amid growing support for a recent bill filed by a former police chief that aims to legalize marijuana for personal use, unleashing an unprecedented debate in this conservative U.S. territory.

The crowd marched to the seaside Capitol building, where Sen. Miguel Pereira filed a bill this week stating it should be legal for those 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of marijuana. The former federal prosecutor and corrections secretary said possession cases are costing the government money, noting that 80 percent of inmates are serving time for non-violent crimes.

Many Puerto Ricans, in and outside of government, are now calling for Pereira’s head. Sen. Itzamar Pena, who represents Puerto Rico’s at-large district, called Pereira’s move “outrageous.”

Pereira initiated the measure early last week, looking to amend Puerto Rico’s Controlled Substance Law, which punishes marijuana uses with up to three years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

“What this measure wants to do is decriminalize possession for personal consumption and recognize what’s going on in the country,” the senator said in a radio interview.

As any elected official would say living in a place as conservative as Puerto Rico, Pereira cites the high costs of arresting, convicting and imprisoning marijuana users.

It annoys me that few politicians have the moxie to argue for marijuana decriminalization on the basis of individual liberty.

How many have you heard arguing that the government has no right to tell someone what they can or cannot willfully ingest in the privacy of their home? How many have you heard affirming that the government cannot justifiably prohibit marijuana use when it doesn’t prohibit the use of alcohol and cigarettes, substances widely known to be no less harmful than marijuana?

Earlier this month, PBS aired the documentary The House I Live In, which details America’s war on drugs and its effects on poorer people. The film describes how the nation’s first anti-drug laws coincided with the rise of anti-Chinese sentiment along the West Coast. San Francisco’s Opium Den Ordinance of 1875, which prohibited the use of a drug  traditionally used by Chinese workers after-hours, was the first law in the United States to ban the consumption of a specific substance. A couple of years prior, the Panic of 1873 had hit the nation, initiating a recession that would last six years. Instead of tackling crime or health issues, the opium ban was implemented as a way of removing Chinese men from the workforce (and keeping white women out of the infamous opium dens).

Unsurprisingly, the same thing happened with marijuana 60 years later. During the Roaring Twenties, when alcohol was banned but the liquor still flowed, marijuana was hardly considered a threat to anything. And although the Southwest experienced a surge in Mexican immigration, the newcomers were largely tolerated due to the plethora of available jobs.

Once the stock market crashed in October 1929 and the nation entered the worst depression in its history, America’s views on Mexicans and marijuana immediately shifted. Now that there weren’t enough jobs to go around, it seemed to most Americans that there were too many Mexicans in the country taking American jobs (sound familiar?). The exotic name “marihuana” soon became popular among crusading government officials during the 1930s.

The year 1936 saw the release of Reefer Madness, the now iconic film portraying marijuana users as crazed brutes who killed and raped while in a fit of laughter. Police officials in the border states claimed smoking marijuana endowed Mexicans with superhuman strength.

In 1937, the United States passed its first law against marijuana. Although it came in the form of a tax and not an outright prohibition, the steep fines and penalties associated with the law meant virtual prohibition for most people.

Nowadays, along with plenty of Mexicans and other Latinos, marijuana laws are just as likely to ensnare blacks and poorer whites. A drug conviction on someone’s record severely limits their job opportunities and access to higher learning, as many employers are apt to discriminate against ex-cons and the government reducing financial aid for drug criminals. A young, pot-smoking Barry Obama would’ve never become president had he been caught with a bit of shake.

Such a system of laws amounts to institutional racism and classism against people of color and the poor — “the new Jim Crow,” as law professor Michelle Alexander labeled it in 2010.

Still, drug use remains a controversial issue in Puerto Rico, and I’m not sure whether the island’s high level of crime will work for or against the push for marijuana decriminalization. Some Puerto Ricans might want to take the focus off marijuana users so law enforcement is free to go after more serious criminals, but other Puerto Ricans likely view the marijuana users as part of the problem.

Plus, there’s always the whole statehood issue to consider.

[Photo: it was 3 a.m. via Flickr]

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