The War on Marijuana in Black and White: Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests

Affiliate: ACLU of Florida
June 4, 2013 2:56 pm

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In Florida, Black People Found to Be 4.2 Times More Likely to Be Arrested for Marijuana Possession Than White People, Despite Equal Usage Rates

June 4, 2013

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MIAMI – According to a new report by the ACLU, blacks were arrested for marijuana possession at 4.2 times the rate of whites in 2010, despite comparable marijuana usage rates. The report, Marijuana in Black and White: Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests, released today, is the first ever to examine state and county marijuana arrest rates nationally by race. The findings show that while there were pronounced racial disparities in marijuana arrests 10 years ago, they have grown significantly worse.

“The war on marijuana has disproportionately been a war on people of color,” says Ezekiel Edwards, Director of the Criminal Law Reform Project at the ACLU and one of the primary authors of the report. “State and local governments have aggressively enforced marijuana laws selectively against Black people and communities, needlessly ensnaring hundreds of thousands of people in the criminal justice system at tremendous human and financial cost.”

In Florida, the counties with the largest racial disparity in marijuana possession arrests were Sarasota, Martin, and Pinellas. Statewide, police officers made 57,951 arrests for marijuana possession in 2010, and marijuana possession rates accounted for 40.9 percent of all drug arrests in 2010. In the past 10 years, marijuana possession arrest rates have risen 11.4% and the racial disparities among such arrests have increased 15.0%.

Despite the fact that a majority of Americans now support marijuana legalization, Florida spent $228,635,840 enforcing marijuana laws in 2010. Nationally, states spent an estimated $3.61 billion enforcing marijuana possession laws in 2010 alone.

“Florida law enforcement’s aggressive policing of marijuana, besides being racially biased and costly, has failed in its most basic purported objective: ending the use of marijuana in the state,” stated Julie Ebenstein, staff attorney for the ACLU of Florida who works on criminal justice reform. “Drug arrests threaten to disqualify people from public housing and student financial aid, can cost someone their job or custody of their child, and because of Florida’s felon disfranchisement policy, even their right to vote. Furthermore, the aggressive enforcement of marijuana possession laws against people of color creates a culture of mutual mistrust between the police and the communities they serve, compromising cooperation and public safety.”

Key national findings from the report include:

Arrests Rates

  • Nationwide, between 2001 and 2010, there were 8.2 million marijuana arrests. Over 7 million, or 88%, of these arrests were for possession (versus for sale or distribution). In 2010, there were over 889,000 marijuana arrests – 300,000 more than arrests for all violent crimes combined that year. This means one marijuana arrest every 37 seconds in 2010. Over 780,000 of those arrests were for possession.

Race Disparities

  • Nationwide, a black person was over 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, despite comparable usage rates.
  • In the states with the worst disparities, Blacks were on average more than 6 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as whites. And, in counties with the worst disparities, Blacks were over 10, 15 and even 30 times more likely to be arrested.
  • The racial disparities exist in all regions of the U.S., as well as in both large and small counties, cities and rural areas, and in both high- and low-income communities. Disparities are also consistently high whether Blacks make up a small or a large percentage of a county’s overall population.

John Morgan, of the law firm Morgan & Morgan PA, is gathering signatures to amend Florida’s constitution to legalize medical marijuana. The ACLU of Florida supports his cause to legalize medical marijuana as the first step for marijuana legalization in the state. The ACLU is calling for the states to legalize marijuana by licensing and regulating marijuana production, distribution, and possession for persons 21 or older, taxing marijuana sales, and removing state law criminal and civil penalties for such activities, which it says would eliminate the unfair racially- and community-targeted selective enforcement of marijuana laws. In addition, at a time when states are facing budget shortfalls, taxing and regulating would allow them to save millions of dollars currently spent on enforcement while raising millions more in revenue, money that can be invested in public schools and community and public health programs, including drug treatment. If legalization is not possible, the ACLU recommends depenalizing marijuana possession by removing all civil and criminal penalties for authorized use and possession for persons 21 or older; or, if depenalization is not possible, decriminalizing low-level marijuana possession by replacing all criminal penalties for use and possession of small amounts of marijuana for adults and youth with a maximum civil penalty of a small fine. Finally, if decriminalization is not possible, the ACLU suggests police and prosecutors deprioritize enforcement of marijuana possession laws.

In the report, the ACLU also urges lawmakers and law enforcement to reform policing practices, including ending racial profiling as well as unconstitutional stops, frisks, and searches, and also to reform state and federal funding streams that incentivize police to make low-level drug arrests.

More information on the report is available here.

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