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Report: Racial gap persists in marijuana arrests possession

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African Americans are nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite similar rates of drug use, a new report released by the American Civil Liberties Union reveals.

According to the ACLU’s findings, which rely on data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program and the U.S. Census, racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests exist in all regions of the country — North and South, urban and rural, affluent and poor, and with small and large black communities.

In 2010, the national white arrest rate was 192 per 100,000 whites, while the black arrest rate was 716 per 100,000.

This discrepancy cannot be explained by different rates of drug use, since they are roughly equal: In 2010, 14 percent of blacks and 12 percent of whites reported using marijuana in the past year. And among youth, in each year between 2001 and 2010, more whites ages 18 to 25 reported using marijuana than blacks in the same age bracket.

As the report concludes: “The War on Marijuana has, quite simply, served as a vehicle for police to target communities of color.”

The ACLU’s statistics also show that racial disparities in Massachusetts are worse than the national average. In the past decade, the Bay State has seen one of the country’s greatest increases in racial disparities — in 2001, African Americans were just 2.2 times more likely to get arrested for marijuana possession, but in 2010, that number jumped to 3.9. And in Suffolk County, black residents are nearly five times more likely to be arrested than whites.

Put another way, African Americans make up just 7.7 percent of Massachusetts’ population, but comprise 25.9 percent of marijuana possession arrests throughout the state.

These statistics do not surprise Carlton Williams, a criminal defense attorney in Roxbury, who says that they “absolutely” match what he sees everyday on the ground.

Massachusetts decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2009 — “so that it goes from being like shoplifting, to now, like a parking ticket,” Williams says — and that led to a dramatic drop-off in the number of marijuana arrests throughout the state. But even with the decriminalization, African Americans are still targeted far more than whites.

Williams says part of the reason for this is because residents can still be arrested for having an ounce or less of marijuana — if the police suspect there’s intent to distribute.

But what distinguishes possession from possession with intent to distribute remains “nebulous” and up to the discretion of law enforcement officials. “The problem is that the face of the person, and the race of the person, plays possibly the greatest role in that determination,” Williams says, “Not the quantity of the drugs, not the weight of the drugs, not the paraphernalia the person has.”

David Harris, managing director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard University, adds that it’s not just individual officers who are to blame, since there’s an entire “policy of targeting communities of color in ways that white suburban communities aren’t.”

So even though Massachusetts has decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, the drug laws that are part of the larger war on crime are so entrenched that reversing course will not happen over night. “It’s going to take much longer to de-escalate that, regardless of what the laws say,” he says.

Still, Harris thinks there should be greater accountability for the persistent racial disparities in drug arrests in the Commonwealth. He explains that shortly after marijuana’s decriminalization in 2009, his son, who was in 5th grade at the time, participated in a DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program at school, which featured presentations from local law enforcement officials. One of them, Harris says, “mocked the law — he was making fun of decriminalization and saying it was bad.

“Something has to happen so that our law enforcement officers are obligated to obey the law, and if the law says that possession of small amounts of marijuana is permitted, there should be consequences for the failure to do so,” he says. “To the extent that the law is being used to harass certain people of color, then that’s not in keeping with the law. We should learn from the data, and if the data tell us that disparities continue, then we need to think of consequences.”

On top of racial discrimination, the ACLU points out that the nation’s marijuana laws have swept a huge number of people into the criminal justice system, putting a tremendous financial burden on the government. In 2010 alone, one person was arrested for marijuana every 37 seconds, costing cash-strapped states more than $3.6 billion. Massachusetts spent more than $9 million enforcing marijuana possession laws in the same year.

The ACLU concludes that the War on Marijuana — like the War on Drugs — is a “failure,” and calls for full legalization for people over the age of 21. Legalization, the report explains, would end the racial targeting that has come along with harsh drug laws, and generate new tax income for states that could be used to fund substance abuse treatment and public health programs, as well as public schools.

Williams agrees. “The problems with safety in our community don’t come from selling two $20-bags of marijuana,” he says. “If we focused on things that work it would be far more beneficial. Any arrest for marijuana need not be a focus for police departments.”