Studies show African Americans and Latinos disproportionately arrested for marijuana possession
on October 28, 2010
In addition to being a health, economic and legal issue, Proposition 19 has now become a civil rights issue. According to two reports released within the last week by the Drug Policy Alliance and partnering civil rights organizations, African Americans and Latinos are arrested anywhere from 2 to 13 times as often as whites for personal possession of marijuana, although arrest rates vary by city.
The Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that works to change public policy regarding drugs, worked with the California NAACP to release the report Arresting Blacks for Marijuana in California last Friday. On Wednesday, it released a second report, Arresting Latinos for Marijuana in California, with the William C. Velasquez Institute, a public policy analysis organization that works with Latinos.
The reports document 850,000 arrests made in California for possession of small amounts of marijuana over the past 20 years. Despite statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services showing that whites consume pot at a higher rate than people of color, the report concludes that blacks and Latinos are arrested far more often.
The three organizations behind the studies support Proposition 19, which would legalize the personal use of marijuana, because the groups believe that legalization would end these types of arrests. “I looked at what the war on drugs was doing to our community and I was just devastated thinking that the law enforcement that was supposed to be protecting me was destroying my community,” said Alice Huffman, the president of the California NAACP, at a Friday press conference. “Proposition 19 just fell into my lap and I seized the moment for my community to get this dialog out there.”
Documenting 25 cities in California where most individual marijuana arrests happen, the reports show that even though arrest rates for all other crimes in the state have plummeted, over the last 20 years marijuana arrests have tripled, from 21,000 to 61,000 arrests. “Marijuana possession is the ultimate outlier,” says Stephen Gutwillig, the state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. “This enormous escalation was made possible by the targeting of communities of color, specifically African Americans and Latinos.”
The reports both show that arrest rates for racial minorities vary by city. For example, in Los Angeles African Americans are arrested seven times as often as whites, while in nearby Torrance African Americans are arrested 13.8 times as often as whites. Oakland was not included in the report because very few low-level marijuana arrests are made here. However, the organizations say that disproportionately high arrest rates for blacks and Latinos are found in every county in the state.
The Arresting Blacks for Marijuana in California report also shows that African Americans are arrested far out of proportion to their population in all of the 25 California cities documented in the study. For example, according to the report, African Americans make up 10 percent of the population in Los Angeles, but they represent about 35 percent of the arrests for low-level marijuana possession. In Sacramento, 15 percent of population is African American, but they make up over 50 percent of the low-level marijuana arrests.
Several government officials, policy analysts, law enforcement and the actor Danny Glover, who is a Proposition 19 supporter, spoke at press conferences Wednesday and last week to publicize the results of these reports. “When the NAACP said the issue is an issue of civil rights, they hit it on the nail,” said Glover at a press conference in downtown Oakland last Friday. “In accepting this position, we clear a new space for the discourse around marijuana.”
Several speakers at the Friday and Wednesday press conferences said these reports show that the arrests happen because of systematic police practices. “This is not the result of a few racist cops here and there and a few racist police departments,” said Gutwillig. “This is apparently the way the system is supposed to work, because it works this way all across the state.”
Neill Franklin, from Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of former U.S. law enforcement and criminal justice officials who are concerned about the country’s drug policies, agreed with Gutwillig’s statement. “If you ask people today ‘Why do police come into communities of color?’ I think you know what the answer is—it’s to search for drugs,” he said. “Racial profiling—it is the number one reason.”
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