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Justice Sotomayor to Students: Get Involved, Just Not In Legalizing Marijuana

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Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor recently gave an impassioned talk to a room full of college students, imploring them to get involved in improving the world and fighting against injustices they see in society. The only thing is, she just doesn’t want young adults spending their time working to legalize marijuana.

“We can only change the conditions you don’t like if each and every one of us becomes passionate about something,” Sotomayor said in the appearance at Amherst College.

“I don’t really care what kind of thing you become passionate about,” she said, before tilting her head and dismissively waving her hands, adding, “Maybe legalizing marijuana, but you know.”

And while Sotomayor followed up with, “Even that has people who have been passionate and have accomplished something, OK,” the implication was clear: Working on marijuana legalization is a frivolous waste of time that, in the justice’s view, would much better spent addressing a more meaningful issue.

Marijuana.com obtained a video of the September 8 talk:

It’s surprising to see a Supreme Court justice, particularly this one, so brazenly brush-off the importance of the debate about ending marijuana prohibition. A growing majority of Americans now supports legalization. And the marijuana law reform movement has indeed “accomplished something”:  We’ve legalized marijuana in four states and the nation’s capitol. We’ve made medical cannabis available to patients in some form in 40 states. We are now regularly securing bipartisan victories in Congress. Presidential candidates of both parties are calling for the federal government to let states legalize marijuana without interference.

This is an issue that is now squarely at the forefront of mainstream American politics.

For someone who has inspired so many as the first Supreme Court justice of Hispanic heritage and only the third women ever to serve on the bench to chastise young people who spend their time working to undo failed and harmful marijuana laws is jarring.

Surely Sotomayor, who grew up in the Bronx and served as a prosecutor in Manhattan, is at least tangentially aware of the fact that the enforcement of marijuana criminalization is highly targeted towards people of color, the poor and disadvantaged communities. African Americans, for example, are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites are, even though usage rates are virtually identical.

The justice’s comments are all the more discordant because she delivered them minutes after expressing dismay over the “loss of faith” in government that, in her eyes, is a “critical problem” for the generation of young people in college today.

It should be no surprise that millennials, 68% of whom support legalization, according to polling, don’t put a lot of stock in government at a time when FBI data shows there is still more than one marijuana arrest every minute in this country.

Sotomayor’s remarks came in response to a student’s question about how the challenges faced by young people graduating into the world today differ from the ones the justice’s generation encountered.

Citing such landmark victories from her youth as the Civil Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act and the Voting Rights Act, she harkened back to a time when “people believed in government and in the law.”

It’s a shame that Sotomayor doesn’t see how working to end marijuana prohibition and the larger failed war on drugs is a part of the ongoing work of the civil rights movement. It might help if she picked up a copy of Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow,” which details how mass incarceration is just the latest, most subtle mechanism by which people of color in America have been marginalized, oppressed and disenfranchised.

It is worth mentioning that at least one person who has served on the Supreme Court thinks ending marijuana prohibition is a good idea: Former Justice John Paul Stevens, whose tenure briefly overlapped with Sotomayor’s, endorsed legalization last year.

Sotomayor may come to regret her curt, dismissive characterization of marijuana legalization’s importance. Sitting justices generally try to avoid weighing in on policy issues that may come before the Court. Indeed, just prior to the Q & A session with the students she said, “I’m open game, except for the political stuff.”

In the past, justices have had to recuse themselves from cases because prior remarks revealed feelings that put their impartiality in question. The Supreme Court is currently being asked to hear a case from the states of Nebraska and Oklahoma, which have sued neighboring Colorado over its legal marijuana law.

In any event, Sotomayor’s viewpoint isn’t likely to have much of an effect on the marijuana law reform movement’s continued success. Legalization measures are expected to appear on ballots in at least five states next year, and almost every week another prominent lawmaker, politician or thought leader announces his or her support for ending prohibition.

“I just want you to pick something in your life that you don’t like and that you work to change,” Sotomayor told the students at Amherst. “It can be big or small, but if every one one of us becomes active citizens, active participants in our community, we can make the necessary changes… Don’t give up. Fight to make it better.”

Justice Sotomayor can rest assured that legalizers will keep fighting, and that the movement certainly won’t give up before judges on the nation’s highest court stop dismissing the seriousness of an issue that so many people care so much about.

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