If You're Black and You Like Marijuana, You're 3.67 Times More Likely to Be Arrested

ACLU's online tool reveals the racialized enforcement of drug laws.

ACLU's Online Tool Reveals the Disproportionate Enforcement of Drug Laws on Black Americans

(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Staff Writer Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at GOOD.

Got a little marijuana in your pocket? If so, you'd better hope you're not black. If you are, congratulations, you're 3.67 times more likely to be arrested for possession of Mary Jane in the United States than your white friend.

An online tool developed by the ACLU is turning the spotlight on this disproportionate targeting of black Americans and the billions of taxpayer dollars being spent on it. It's full of illuminating facts about the failed war on drugssuch as that a full 88 percent of marijuana-related arrests are for possession, not selling, and that there were 8 million arrests between 2001 and 2010. That's the equivalent of arresting the entire population of New York City for pot possession.

Visitors can also see a state-by-state breakdown of the discrepancies between blacks and whites arrested for pot.

For example, a black person living in Illinois is a whopping 7.56 times more likely to be arrested for pot possession than a white person. If that same black person lived in California, he or she would be 2.19 times more likely to be handcuffed. While that might not seem like much compared with Illinois' sky-high statistic, let's remember: Twice as often is doubly unjust. 

And depending on the amount of pot a person has at the time of the arrest, it could result in a felony on his or her record, which has a host of consequences.

That felony means no federally-backed student loans, making the 62 percent of people arrested for marijuana who are under 24 less likely to be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and go to college.

If they lose a job thanks to that weed-related felony, they can forget about government assistance such as food stamps. Good luck trying to get a new gig too. Given changing attitudes about marijuana and the fact that it's fully legal in Colorado and Washington, employers might not care about weed at all. But every time people have to check that job application box saying they've been convicted of a felony, they're probably going to be screened out. They'll never even get a foot in the door to explain why it's checked. And that's for the rest of their lives. Oh, and in many states a felony conviction means no voting, too.

All these consequences falling disproportionately on black folks, reasearchers say, has led to a new, Jim Crow-like situation whereby oppression of blacks takes the form of unjust imprisonment, and African-Americans' economic and social gains in recent decades seem greater than they have been because those behind bars literally are not counted.

The Uncovery site also reveals that in 2010, the United States spent an astounding $3.61 billion enforcing marijuana laws. That's a lot of cash that could be funneled into job-training programs or education.

Once you've poked around the site and learned about the race-based injustice happening in your own backyard, the ACLU hopes you'll take action. Apart from the movement to decriminalize pot, there's a growing perception that the racialized way marijuana laws are enforced is wrong. Those who believe can write a statement of support, share the project, and let elected officials know they think that these race-based discrepancies are wrong.

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