Topline

Giving weight to complaints from racial justice protesters that Blacks are overpoliced and penalized for infractions often overlooked in white offenders, a new study shows that police in Washington, D.C., are far more likely to arrest Blacks than whites for marijuana-related offenses.

Key Facts

Marijuana arrests declined by more than half in the four years after legalization in 2015, yet Blacks still accounted for nearly 90% of arrests on all pot-related charges after legalization, according to a Washington Post analysis, despite the fact that when advocates campaigned for the 2014 legalization referendum, a main selling point was that the reform would erase the gap between the numbers of Blacks and whites penalized for using a drug that has broad appeal.

Blacks make up 45% of the city’s population and studies show that marijuana use is equally prevalent among Blacks and whites, the Post said, yet 84% of more than 900 people arrested for public consumption after legalization in the nation’s capital were Black.

Before legalization, Blacks accounted for nearly 89% of the police department’s 8,092 pot-related arrests from 2012 to 2014, the Post’s analysis shows, while between 2015 and 2019, there were 3,631 marijuana arrests and 89% of those arrested were Black.

A D.C. police spokeswoman declined to comment to the Post on the disparity, noting that arrests for consumption or possession of small amounts of marijuana have declined significantly since legalization.

The same pattern has been seen far beyond D.C.: Blacks in Alabama were found to be four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in 2016 as whites, according to a 2018 report from the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Similar racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests were found in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, according to Norml, which tracks efforts to legalize marijuana use—the group states that nationwide, Blacks are four times more likely than whites to be arrested for possessing marijuana, despite members of both ethnicities using the substance at similar rates.

Tangent

Issues of unequal treatment in policing aren’t confined to drug crimes. In New York City, the police department came under scrutiny for issuing a disproportionate number of summons for violating -social-distancing rules to people of color while that city was the epicenter of the U.S. Covid-19 outbreak.

Key Background

Racial profiling and disproportionate arrest patterns have contributed to calls among social justice protesters to reallocate some funds now devoted to law enforcement to community services, similar to measures proposed in the BREATHE Act, backed by the Movement 4 Black Lives, that would cut police and Defense Department spending and reinvest the money in community programs. Congress and individual communities have taken steps to try to address practices shown to disproportionately target Black and brown people — from “stop and frisk,” which came back to haunt former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg during his brief presidential campaign, to racial bias in traffic stops. The American Bar Association this year noted that it’s been more than two decades since the introduction of the first piece of proposed legislation on racial profiling: the Traffic Stops Statistics Act of 1997, H.R. 118. Passed unanimously by the U.S. House of Representatives in March 1998, this bill constituted the first attempt by any legislative body to come to grips with racial profiling, the bar association said. It never advanced in the Senate and ultimately died, the association said.

Further Reading

D.C. legalized marijuana, but one thing didn’t change: Almost everyone arrested on pot charges is Black (Washington Post)

Racial Profiling: Past, Present, and Future? (American Bar Association)

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