By Aryanna Berringer
Pittsburgh Current Political Columnist
Five police cars with lights flashing were parked in the driveway as a white Nissan Sentra pulled in behind them; four kids taking up the extra seats.
There stood a black man with his hands cuffed behind his back while officers pulled everything from the home–what looked to be a rented flute used for performances in the elementary school band, an old desktop computer, and a turquoise Jansport backpack.
As they pushed the black man’s head down to be placed in the back of the car, his eyes caught those of his daughter’s, and shame washed over his face.
I was nine years old and that man was my father.
He was being arrested for possession of marijuana.
I see this picture, this one moment in our life, often.
It shaped much of who I am today and how I view the world.
To be honest, when states started to legalize marijuana, I wasn’t for it. I watched the felony conviction of my father limit his ability to participate in what so many of us take for granted–getting a decent job, renting a home, even decades later trying to own a rifle to hunt. Or, hell, even running for office if he wanted to.
My family was eventually ripped apart, partially due to that prison sentence and conviction. My parents divorced a few years later, but that conviction followed him for the rest of his life.
My husband, Daren and I, had a long conversation over legalization back in 2013. One of those conversations that was full of emotion, tears, anger, and in the end, thoughtful reflection.
I couldn’t see how something that for all intents and purposes ruined my family could be good for anyone.
In that conversation with Daren, he helped me to realize that it wasn’t the possession of marijuana that was bad or the use thereof, but the systems in place that ensured my father, a black man, was fined and jailed. The laws that disportionately target people like my father,despite equal rates of usage is what is wrong.
Black people are almost four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites and those statistics are from 20 years after my father’s arrest. So I can only surmise that in 1991 the rates were higher than 2001 or 2011.
This brings us to today.
Last July I wrote about what I felt would be a viable path for legalization in Pennsylvania that also ensured that we properly invested the revenue into programs that made us stronger as a commonwealth right here in the Pittsburgh Current. It was what I campaigned on for Lt. Governor and as the first candidate in that race to call for legalization, I took a different approach than others who came after me.
It isn’t just about economics, but it’s about people’s lives. It’s about ensuring those like my dad who were charged with a felony could after legalization be a fully functioning member of society again.
So as politicians go on “listening tours” and bring forth bills, I sincerely hope they take a couple of simple, yet powerful steps.
- Review criminal convictions for marijuana charges and expunge the records of individuals who are serving and or served time for possession of marijuana.
- As small businesses are granted licenses to sell marijuana that preference is given to applicants of color.
I’m incredibly hopeful by the appointment by Lt. Governor John Fetterman of Brandon Flood as the Secretary of the Board of Pardons. I’ve gotten to know Brandon and he is a true champion for criminal justice reform. I believe that he has the insight and pragmatism as someone who served eight years in prison for drug and gun-related charges starting at the age of 22, to reflect and ensure that people like him and my father are given the second chances they’ve earned.