Let’s dispense with the simple stuff first: Suspending Saugus High School athletes from post-season lacrosse and baseball games for smoking cigars on graduation day was dumb.
It’s a move that seems to stray pretty far from the spirit of a rule banning tobacco at school events. And punishing seniors who have already graduated for ceremonial stogies only makes sense in a black-and-white world where there’s no such thing as discretion.
But smoking cigars at a graduation is dumb, too — and that’s true whether you’re a student or a parent or Groucho Marx himself. And if that’s a Saugus tradition, as some have claimed? Well, the tradition is dumb.
But even as most people seemed to come down on the side of common sense, there was something mortifyingly tone deaf about the uproar that followed. Because if we’re going to decry selective enforcement of rules governing smoking, then the Saugus High School lacrosse team circa 2018 is an odd place to start.
In Boston and in cities all over the country, smoking the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time has led to missing a lot more than a lacrosse game.
“In our communities, we’ve had young people work for things, strive for things, and a joint ruined their lives,” said Horace Small, executive director of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods, an advocacy group focused on communities of color.
Meanwhile, comparatively lax enforcement of drug laws in white, well-to-do communities around the country rendered marijuana use effectively legal long before relatively recent changes to state law. (Saugus, by the way, is about 90 percent white.)
“Despite roughly equal usage rates, Blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana,” according to an analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union.
For years, according to mountains of research, poor and minority communities have suffered under discriminatory and selective enforcement of drug laws.
“Disparities in arrests and incarceration are seen for both drug possession law violations as well as low-level sales,” according to the Drug Policy Alliance , a coalition that advocates for sensible, fair, and evidence-based drug laws.
That has certainly been the case here, said Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice.
“We see selective enforcement across the criminal justice system, particularly in connection with people of color and immigrants disproportionately subjected to heightened scrutiny: stopped and frisked; pulled over and ticketed for relatively minor infractions; and searched for drugs and weapons,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Globe.
In Massachusetts, disparities in enforcement have been so plain that the state’s marijuana legalization effort has included an effort to boost the communities that the drug war indisputably harmed. The first-in-the-nation “equity” program will include “a headstart in the rush for cannabis licenses to companies that are led by or employ minorities, to people with past marijuana convictions,” the Globe’s Dan Adams reported last month.
Basically, the idea that selective and discriminatory enforcement during the war on drugs did real and serious harm to minority communities is so accepted that it’s enshrined in state law.
The situation in Saugus doesn’t come with the same repercussions. But selective enforcement is always problematic, and Small, who lives in Jamaica Plain, also thought suspending the high school students over cigars was bonkers. He remembered passing a bottle of scotch between friends outside his high school graduation; the principal who walked by looked the other way.
“How do you suspend kids for celebrating the biggest achievement of their lives up that point?” Small asked.
In the end, the plight of the Saugus Six probably won’t amount to much. Missing a game will seem devastating now but will just as surely soon seem pretty trivial, as anyone who played high school sports can attest.
But just imagine, for a moment, what would have happened if every low-level marijuana possession bust in Boston over the years drew such an outraged public reaction.
“If the community is in an uproar because they know the punishment exceeds the crime, then the next time they hear about Rodney in Roxbury getting the book thrown at him over half a joint, maybe they’ll think twice,” Small said. “If they can see how this is fundamentally screwed, then I have hope.”
Nestor Ramos can be reached at email@example.com.