Why Blacks Are Four Times Likelier Than Whites to Be Arrested for Marijuana Possession

A blog about murder, theft, and other wickedness.
June 4 2013 2:00 PM

Whites and Blacks Use Marijuana at Similar Rates. Blacks Are Almost Four Times Likelier to Be Arrested for It.

A man holds a giant joint.

Photo by Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images

Crime is Slate’s crime blog. Like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter @slatecrime.

A new report from the ACLU finds that blacks are arrested for marijuana possession 3.73 times more often than whites nationwide, even though the rate of marijuana use is relatively similar across races. The report, “The War on Marijuana in Black and White,” was released this morning; it claims to be the first comprehensive attempt to examine marijuana possession arrest rates, by race and by state, from 2001 to 2010. Its findings are further evidence that the “war on marijuana” is expensive, inefficient, and racially biased—and that it probably won’t be ending anytime soon.


The recent decriminalization of marijuana possession for personal use in Colorado and Washington state might seem to indicate that national attitudes toward the drug are liberalizing. But the ACLU report shows that Colorado and Washington are the exception, not the rule:

The report finds that between 2001 and 2010, there were over 8 million marijuana arrests in the United States, 88% of which were for possession. Marijuana arrests have increased between 2001 and 2010 and now account for over half (52%) of all drug arrests in the United States, and marijuana possession arrests account for nearly half (46%) of all drug arrests. In 2010, there was one marijuana arrest every 37 seconds, and states spent combined over $3.6 billion enforcing marijuana possession laws.

As the following chart shows, marijuana usage rates are roughly equal for blacks and whites:


From the ACLU report "The War on Marijuana in Black and White"

But minorities, overwhelmingly, are the ones being arrested: “In 2010, the Black arrest rate for marijuana possession was 716 per 100,000, while the white arrest rate was 192 per 100,000. Stated another way, a Black person was 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person—a disparity that increased 32.7% between 2001 and 2010.”

After reading through the report, it’s not hard to understand why this is happening. In general, cops tend to focus their attention on neighborhoods with high rates of crime. Those neighborhoods tend to be populated by members of low-income minority groups. Cops patrolling those neighborhoods are often empowered to stop and frisk residents on the slimmest of pretexts, and, because of that, they are likelier to find people who are carrying marijuana. So, in order to bring the crime rate down, they will arrest people on these marijuana possession charges, which helps foster the impression that poor neighborhoods have high rates of crime. It’s a stupid, self-perpetuating cycle.

You can blame a lot of this on the controversial “broken windows” theory of policing, which essentially maintains that minor violations beget major ones, and that you can combat violent crime by rigorously enforcing small quality-of-life offenses. You can also blame data-driven police initiatives like COMPSTAT, which meticulously track crime statistics on a precinct-by-precinct basis. In theory, programs like COMPSTAT are supposed to promote accountability, and a more precise deployment of police resources. In practice, they put cops under tremendous pressure to show continuous improvement in their precincts, and, as such, condone arrest quotas, stop-and-frisk policies, and other tactics that look good on the stat sheets even as they wreck neighborhoods.

But you can also blame the federal government. While the current federal drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, has spoken about the need to treat marijuana use as a public health matter rather than a strictly criminal one, others in the federal government aren’t nearly as progressive. The ACLU report talks about a federal program called the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant, which doles out funding to police departments in large part based on the number of drug arrests they make. With municipal budgets strapped, police departments depend on these sorts of federal grants. The “public health” approach to marijuana will never be viable as long as JAG funding and similar programs are essential to departments’ survival.

The ACLU report shouldn’t really come as news to anyone who has been paying attention to federal drug policy over the past 30 years. But it’s still a valuable reminder that, though liberalization advocates have seen a series of victories in Colorado, Washington, and elsewhere, the war on drugs is far, far, far from over. Read the whole report here.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.



Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?


Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 9:13 PM The Smart, Talented, and Utterly Hilarious Leslie Jones Is SNL’s Newest Cast Member
Oct. 20 2014 11:36 PM Forget Oculus Rift This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual-reality experience.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.