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.

169003151
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.

Advertisement

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:

1370368288471

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Lifetime Didn’t Find the Steubenville Rape Case Dramatic Enough. So They Added a Little Self-Immolation.

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.
Behold
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 19 2014 9:15 PM Chris Christie, Better Than Ever
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.