The Breakdown

White people and black people smoke the same amount of pot. But when it comes to who winds up in trouble, the African-American smokers get much worse punitive consequences.

A new study by the American Civil Liberties Union found that black people are almost four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as white people, even though about the same percentage of each group uses cannabis. The study, based on federal crime data, looked at arrest information between 2001 and 2010 and found African-Americans were arrested on marijuana charges at a rate 3.73 times greater than that of whites. The study found 14 percent of blacks use pot, compared to 12 percent of whites.

“In over 96 percent of counties with more than 30,000 people in which at least 2 percent of the residents are black, blacks are arrested at higher rates than whites for marijuana possession” -ACLU, The War on Marijuana in Black and White

The arrest rate among African-Americans increased substantially over time, and the disparity widened: In 2001, the marijuana arrest rate for blacks was 537 per 100,000, while in 2010 it was 716 per 100,000. In the same time period, the arrest rate for whites rose from 191 per 100,000 to just 192 per 100,000. More whites were arrested, but only because blacks make up less than 15 percent of the population. The ACLU said the increase in black arrests drove an overall increase in pot busts since the early 2000s. The numbers add fuel to the growing national debate over marijuana. Polls show a growing number of Americans support medical and even outright legalization, in part because of disparities like those highlighted in the ACLU’s study.

Issues Across the Board

The study found the racial disparity in pot arrests exists across the country, though in some counties the arrest rate is as much as 30 times greater for African-Americans than it is for whites. “In over 96 percent of counties with more than 30,000 people in which at least 2 percent of the residents are black, blacks are arrested at higher rates than whites for marijuana possession,” the report said.

The disparity crosses income levels. African-Americans who live in counties with median household incomes of between $85,000 and $115,000, the upper end, are arrested at two to eight times the rate of whites. Those who live in counties with median incomes between $22,000 and $30,000 are arrested at 1.5 to five times the rate of whites.

Some specific findings in the study:Racial Disparity and Medical Marijuana

  • In Washington, D.C., where black residents make up 50 percent of the population, they make up 90 percent of those arrested for marijuana related charges.
  • Eighty-two percent of pot arrests in Philadelphia are of African-Americans, who make up 43 percent of the population.
  • Black people make up about 35 percent of Brooklyn’s population yet account for 63 percent of its weed arrests.
  • Someone is arrested for pot possession in the United States every 41 seconds.

It’s not clear why the disparity between black arrests and white arrests has grown so much over the past decade. It may have less to do with any concerted law enforcement effort against marijuana users than with racially biased strategic policies like New York City’s infamous “stop and frisk,” which has allowed the police to hassle hundreds of thousands of innocent African-Americans on the street.

But the numbers reinforce the pro-legalization position, which has long pointed out that racial profiling in drug enforcement leads to mass incarceration.

Photo courtesy of Bob Doran.



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