Professor Nesson Urges Civic Engagement on Question 4

If you ask a Harvard Law Student who Charles Nesson is, they might say “one of the founders of the Berkman Center.” They are far more likely, however, to respond, “he’s that one professor who smokes a lot of weed, right?”

Charles Nesson is known for his eccentricities and eclectic tastes. Having the fortune of interviewing him this past week, I received confirmation of this perception. Dressed in an outfit that I would label “minimalist-urban-chill,” Professor Nesson entered his office accompanied by his tiny, eight-year-old Yorkshire terrier, Sweet Pea. His face exuded wisdom and calm. And while I wanted to ask him about everything from his favorite film to where he gets his marijuana from, I reminded myself that the purpose of the interview was to understand the context of Massachusetts’s ballot measure: Question 4. The measure, which was recently endorsed by The Boston Globe, would legalize commercial and recreational use of marijuana by adults over the age of 21 and would create a commission to regulate its use. Individuals would each be able to grow up to six marijuana plants in their homes. The measure is predicted to pass in tomorrow’s election, although insiders warn that it will be a tighter vote than expected.[1]

Opponents of the bill point out that there are holes in the bill (for example, there is no mechanism for legally purchasing marijuana for recreational use until January 1, 2018) and that administrative costs would be far too high. Acknowledging that there are valid arguments from either side, Professor Nesson’s main objective in relation to the bill is to promote civic engagement on a topic that he calls a “family issue…an issue in which everyone has a viewpoint.” This past Tuesday, he hosted a community discussion at the Harvard Ed Portal in Allston, in which members of the public came and shared their concerns and questions about the ballot measure.

When I asked Professor Nesson what he thought this measure could do for people of color who have suffered disproportionate impacts from the War on Drugs, he showed me a video[2] put out by the ACLU that he had screened at the community discussion. The video used maps showing geographic concentrations of communities of color and locations of police arrests for marijuana use to convey the above-mentioned disproportionate impact. While I acknowledged the obvious premises of the video, I wasn’t particularly moved, as the video did not show how passage of Question 4 would solve these issues. I posed the following logical next question to Professor Nesson: won’t law enforcement and prosecutors just find loop-holes in order to arrest what they believe to be troublesome populations, i.e. Black and Latino youth? He noted that with the 2008 passage of decriminalization of marijuana in Massachusetts, there was a significant curtailment of police power in the state. However, that doesn’t “change the basic sensibility,” he acknowledged, while pointing to the map from the ACLU video. “The underlying attitude is what’s driving it.” Nonetheless, Professor Nesson believes that legalization of “the gateway to [the state’s] surveillance system” stands to greatly improve the situation.

The racial bias of the War on Drugs is not unique to the U.S., and Professor Nesson’s work in Jamaica representing ganja farmers revealed the mirrored situation in Jamaica. The majority of prisoners in Jamaica are the Rastafari people, who also happen to be the ganja farmers of the country. The situation in Jamaica, however, could be differentiated by the fact that ganja is “literally part of and integral to [Rastafarian] culture.” Ganja is not viewed as a dangerous drug but as “a blessing…it’s God’s plant, it’s a sacrament, it’s traditional medicine.” The Rastafari people’s connection to marijuana, as well as the teachings of the western Rastafari leader, Ras Iyah V, have in some ways inspired Professor Nesson’s marijuana use and his desire to engage the subject of Question 4. He recommended that I watch the film The Harder They Come, a 1972 Jamaican film that was screened every Friday at Cambridge’s Orson Welles Cinema before the theater burned down. The film highlights police corruption by depicting “the way the police used the marijuana trade in Jamaica as an expression of power.”

While police and government corruption might seem to be a never-ending and pervasive problem, Professor Nesson ended on a positive note: civic engagement has the power to shape our laws. He urged the idea that we all ought to truly engage the issues, and we can do so only by listening to each other. And we can only shape the laws if we vote. The ballot measures are critical to shaping the environment that we all live in, and it is critical that voters research the ballot measures that they will be voting on tomorrow. While all the questions on the ballot might not have consequences as deep and significant as those of Question 4, it’s important that voters consider more than the description of each measure as seen on the ballot and that they consider the context within which these measures will be decided.