ACLU: Marijuana Arrests Are Racist, Cost Billions

Someone is arrested in the United States for pot every 37 seconds. Far more often than not, that someone won’t be white.

marijuna arrests are racist and cost billions
Matt Fleischer was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

Think the recent voter-mandated legalization of marijuana in both Colorado and Washington means the tide has turned in favor of decriminalization? Think the federal war on pot is over?

Think again.

According to a new report by the American Civil Liberties Union, a person is arrested every 37 seconds in the United States for marijuana-related offenses. Between 2001 and 2010, there were more than eight million pot arrests in the U.S.

Enforcing marijuana laws costs U.S. taxpayers around $3.6 billion a year.

To pile prejudice upon injustice, the ACLU’s report notes that the application of marijuana laws continues to be undeniably racist. African-Americans are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, despite the fact that both racial groups use weed in virtually identical percentages.

“In 2010, the black arrest rate for marijuana possession was 716 per 100,000, while the white arrest rate was 192 per 100,000,” noted the report, “a disparity that increased 32.7 percent between 2001 and 2010.”

Of the 33,068 people arrested by Cook County cops for marijuana possession in 2010, a whopping 24,046 were black—that’s 72.7 percent.

The reality of racial discrimination in the marijuana criminal justice web may be even worse than the numbers show. The report was unable to take into account Latino arrests for marijuana possession.

“The FBI/UCR arrest data does not identify Latinos as a distinct racial group,” notes the ACLU’s report, “and thus does not distinguish between white and Latino arrests.”

In other words, the Federal government considers whites and Latinos to be the same race in its statistics, despite law-enforcement treatment of these two groups probably being wildly unequal.

“This conflation of Latino and white arrests not only prevents calculation of Latino arrest rates,” the report continues, “but also results in an underestimation of the racial disparities between black and white arrests, since a portion—potentially a significant portion in some places—of the ‘white’ arrests are likely arrests of Latinos.”

On a statewide level, despite the historic legalization triumphs in Colorado and Washington, the arrest rate for marijuana crime has risen dramatically. New York saw its marijuana possession arrest rate jump by 16,173 from 2001 to 2010—likely due to the New York Police Department’s escalation of its notorious “Stop and Frisk” policy, which targets African-Americans for random police searches.

As a consequence, New York led all states in 2010 with 103,698 arrests for marijuana possession.

In New York and Kings Counties (which house Manhattan and Brooklyn respectively) blacks were more than 9.4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. That’s roughly three times greater than the already out-of-proportion national statistics.

But “Stop and Frisk” has a tough time keeping up with Illinois’s Cook County for racial discrimination and marijuana arrests. Of the 33,068 people arrested by Cook County cops for marijuana possession in 2010, a whopping 24,046 were black—that’s 72.7 percent.

Of course, the reality that the criminal-justice system unfairly targets African-Americans isn’t new information.

“According to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the percentage of African-Americans and whites who use marijuana over any 30-day period are similar,” California state director of the Drug Policy Alliance Stephen Gutwillig noted in a 2009 editorial in the LA Times. “However, for the 18 to 25 age group—which constitutes a substantial proportion of marijuana arrests—African Americans regularly use marijuana at rates lower than whites (16.5 percent and 18.4 percent, respectively), indicating that their overrepresentation may be even more profound.”

Discrimination is an ongoing constant in the application of America’s marijuana laws.

What is specifically ironic to today, however, is that the administration of America’s first black president is continuing these patently racist marijuana-enforcement policies.

Do America’s marijuana enforcement policies reflect anything about the country’s justice system in general? Draw some connections in COMMENTS.

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