Black people are arrested for possessing marijuana far more often than white people, even though marijuana use by both races is about the same, the American Civil Liberties Union reports in a new study.
The ACLU’s analysis of federal crime data, released Tuesday, found marijuana arrest rates for black people were 3.73 times greater than those for white people nationally in 2010. In some counties, the arrest rate was 10 to 30 times greater for blacks. In two Alabama counties, 100 percent of those arrested for marijuana possession were black, the ACLU said.
When it comes to marijuana use, about 14 percent of black people and 12 percent of white people reported in 2010 that they had used the drug during the previous year, according to data that the ACLU obtained from the National Drug Health Survey, a Health and Human Services publication. Among younger people ages 18-25, use was greater among whites.
An overall increase in marijuana possession arrests from 2001 to 2010 is largely attributable to drastic increases in arrests of black people, the ACLU said.
Blacks were arrested at a rate of 537 per 100,000 people nationally in 2001. In 2010, their arrest rate rose to 716 per 100,000. The 2001 number for white people was 191 per 100,00 and rose to 192 per 100,000 in 2010, the ACLU said. Despite the disparate rates, far more whites were arrested for marijuana possession in 2010, 460,808 compared to blacks, 286,117.
Ezekiel Edwards, lead author of the ACLU study, attributed the disparate arrest rates to racial profiling by police seeking to pad their arrest numbers with “low-level” arrests in “certain communities that they have kind of labeled as problematic.”
“While this country moves in some ways in a more progressive direction on marijuana policy in a lot of places, in other places, people are getting handcuffed, jailed and getting criminal records at racially disparate rates all around the country,” Edwards said.
Police simply operate from the standpoint that “the use of marijuana is a crime,” said Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police.
“We will try to educate our membership, to the extent the statistics are valid, to be aware (that) people other than blacks are smoking marijuana and to arrest them too,” said Pasco, who had not yet seen the ACLU report.
Arthur Burnett Sr., a retired judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, said his 40 years on the bench showed him that police concentrate their numbers in black communities. It’s easier to catch people with marijuana in communities where there are “open-air” drug markets, rather than looking in homes, basements or country clubs, said Burnett. He is the CEO of the National African American Drug Policy Coalition based in Washington.
Burnett said some black defendants, distrustful of authorities, may lash out, use profanities or be rebellious — behavior that makes it more likely that an officer will make an arrest. Burnett said his coalition supports forming a commission to look at scientific evidence on the effect of marijuana use and “overcriminalization” of it.
The commission would determine whether to treat marijuana like tobacco, in which people are warned about consequences of its use. It would also examine the harshness of penalties for using pot.
“We don’t need to treat it like heroin and cocaine,” Burnett said.
The ACLU supports legalization of marijuana and regulation through taxation and licensing. It also supports eliminating criminal and civil penalties for marijuana possession. If those two options are not possible, the ACLU supports punishment for marijuana possession with only civil penalties, which is often referred to as decriminalizing marijuana possession.
The unequal arrests rates are not confined to a single region of the U.S. or in urban areas with larger black populations, the ACLU said. That discrepancy is found throughout the country, regardless of the size of the black population of the location and at all income levels, the data shows.
For example, in Morgan County, Ala., where African Americans represent 12 percent of the population and Pike County, Alabama, where 37 percent of the population is black, all those arrested for marijuana possession were black, the ACLU found.
African Americans living in counties with the highest median household incomes, $85,000 to $115,000, are two to eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites. In counties with median household incomes of $22,000 to $30,000, the arrest rate for blacks is 1.5 times to five the rate as for whites, the report said.
The largest disparities were found in: Iowa, where blacks were 8.34 times more likely to be arrested than whites; Washington, D.C., 8.05 times greater; Minnesota, 7.81 times; Illinois, 7.56; Wisconsin, 5.98; Kentucky, 5.95 and Pennsylvania, 5.19 times greater.
Blacks face these greater chances for arrest for marijuana possession at a time when Colorado and Washington have legalized adult possession of small amounts of nonmedical marijuana, while a number of states and Washington, D.C. allow medical marijuana. Federal law still prohibits its use. Some states and some cities have eased punishments for possession of smaller amounts.
The findings are hardly surprising to the African American community.
Ben Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, said arrest disparities like those for marijuana possession have led to mass incarceration and criminalization of African Americans, which in turn, has become the new Jim Crow, referring to laws that sanctioned racial segregation in schools and public facilities.
“Any arrest, even for marijuana, is a blot on someone’s record and an impediment to future jobs and opportunities,” Jealous said. “For these reasons, a number of NAACP state conferences (chapters) have supported the decriminalization of marijuana.”