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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.

Graph courtesy of the Drug Policy Alliance.

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.

Danny Glover speaks at the press conference for the release of the report.

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.”

Check out all of our Oakland elections coverage on our Campaign 2010 page.

Lead graph courtesy of the Drug Policy Alliance.

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  1. OakGirl on October 28, 2010 at 9:33 pm

    I think you need to investigate the circumstances which lead to these arrests rather than the number themselves. Questions I would ask, 1) are the arrest the result of a neighbor or other concerned individual making a call about a public smoker, 2) are the individuals being stopped on a traffic infraction but arrested for pot, 3) are they simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    Anecdotally, I believe whites tend to do their smoking indoors while blacks tend to smoke in public. All bets are off for Lake Merritt which is a multi-racial smoker haven.

    • multi-racial non smoker on October 29, 2010 at 9:13 am

      I think you’re missing the point OakGirl. The numbers clearly show a preponderance of racially skewed arrests. It could not be clearer, this is the result of institutionalized racism and profiling statewide.
      As someone who has traveled and lived all across the U.S., I believe the nationwide numbers would be consistent with those found by these studies.
      To think that this overwhelming difference in the enforcement of drug laws is a result of how “whites tend to do their smoking indoors while blacks tend to smoke in public”, is to ignore the hard reality and condone the cultural devastation that this broken system wreaks on our communities.

      Consider these questions… When an officer is trained and assigned to patrol the neighborhoods of Rockridge or Piedmont what do you think they are looking for primarily?? Robberies? Thefts? “Suspicious” characters?? Who or What would look suspicious in those neighborhoods??

      Now, when an officer is trained and assigned to patrol The San Antonio District or the Fruitvale District, or East Oakland neighborhoods, what are they looking for? What kinds of crimes would be associated with those areas? What would be suspicious in those neighborhoods?

      If one was assigned to look for traffic infractions in any neighborhood, let’s say a patrol for expired registration tabs, what would one look for? …a late model Porsche Cayenne? …a Prius? …a 20 year old Buick Regal? …a Honda Accord with body damage?

      Ask yourself questions like those and you’ll probably find that there are deeply entrenched socio-economic factors that are manifested in differing communities that lead to assumptions of guilt and disproportionate arrests.
      Even If it were true that different races and/or cultures smoke marijuana in different ways and in different places it does not change the fact that many, many more peoples of color are being penalized while many whites go unpunished for the same crimes. And, I’ll remind you of that all the while, “the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services show(s) that whites consume pot at a higher rate than people of color”.

      The institutions that are charged with “investigat(ing) the circumstances which lead to these arrests” are the law enforcement agencies and judicial systems. They are failing our citizens.

      We are all complicit in this injustice and cultural oppression when we hide inside of our havens and ignore the overwhelming reality.

  2. OakGirl on October 31, 2010 at 2:07 pm

    You sound like one of those god awful bleeding heart liberals who like to find excuses for why black people are picked upon. If black people were more responsible about their smoking they probably would not be arrested as much. The problem is as Pres Obama stated is black people not taking responsibility for themselves. If you do not want to appear to be thug, then do not dress like a thug. Dress like you belong to somebody. I am tired of seeing young black men dressing like thugs and having little respect for themselves. They will not be dating my daughter.

    Black OakGirl

    • multi-racial non smoker on October 31, 2010 at 11:49 pm

      “More responsible about their smoking”??
      Either it is legal or it is illegal no matter how sneaky one is about it.
      I am NOT looking for any excuses why black people or any others should smoke marijuana or take any other drugs. There are plenty of people doing that already. I am taking issue with the goofy implication that black people should be more discreet at breaking the law like their less criminalized white counterparts. That view seems to me very misguided and biased. The issue in this article is the disproportionate enforcement of the law based on racial profiling.

      I am black. Are you suggesting that we should teach our sons to be wiser criminals in order that they may go on to pass the dress code required to date your daughter.

      As someone who has grown up in poverty and worked and studied hard to earn two degrees, (while I might add, my own brother grew up in the same households, but fell into the pitfalls of street life and eventually ended up in prison for a time), I thoroughly believe in self respect and personal responsibility. Neither my anecdotes nor yours can account for the tremendously different arrest numbers (based on race) for marijuana use in Santa Cruz County, San Diego County, Sacramento County etc, etc..

      I respectfully submit that you are a profiler who views others along a limited spectrum ranging from “god awful bleeding heart liberals” to “thugs”, once again missing the point of these particular studies. They have been undertaken in partnership with amongst others… THE NAACP!!! Our country’s largest, oldest and most influential civil rights organization, without whose efforts you and I may never have been able to vote for President Obama regardless of how we dressed.

      However you want to see me.

    • the nothing on November 16, 2010 at 5:31 pm

      Putting accountability where it’s due is not “making excuses.” It’s certainly no worse than making excuses for institutional racism by blaming it on the people who are effected. When you say that black people are arrested more because they’re always toking walking down the street, you’re essentially calling black people stupid and reckless. White people are no less likely to make stupid mistakes, walk around blazed off their asses, etc. and yet they stand a far lower chance of being arrested for it. Besides, you saw the testimony from Niell Franklin, talking about cops using weed as an excuse to go into black neighborhoods and just round people up. He was a cop, he was there, he saw it happening first hand. Why is it so hard to admit that institutional racism still exists?

      And what constitutes “dressing like a thug?” Thugs don’t have a dress code, though they often dress flashy, and they aren’t confined to any one race. You’re only legitimizing racism by tacitly accepting racist assumptions about how a person of a specific race is dressed. Not only is it implicitly racist, but it is superficiality writ large.

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