OKLAHOMA CITY – According to a report by the ACLU, Blacks were arrested for marijuana possession at nearly three 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 June 5th, 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.[1]

“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 Oklahoma, the counties with the largest racial disparity in marijuana possession arrests were Kay, Creek, and Pontotoc. Statewide, police officers made 10,478 arrests for marijuana possession in 2010, and marijuana possession rates accounted for 52.4% percent of all drug arrests in 2010. In the past 10 years, marijuana possession arrest rates have decreased 7.9% but the racial disparities among such arrests have increased 29.8%.

Despite the fact that a majority of Americans now support marijuana legalization, Oklahoma spent nearly $30 Million enforcing marijuana laws in 2010. Nationally, states spent an estimated $3.61 billion enforcing marijuana possession laws in 2010 alone.

“The aggressive policing of marijuana is time-consuming, costly, racially biased, and doesn’t work,” says Ezekiel Edwards, Director of the Criminal Law Reform Project at the ACLU and one of the primary authors of the report. “These arrests have a significant detrimental impact on people’s lives, as well as on the communities in which they live. When people are arrested for possessing even tiny amounts of marijuana, they can be disqualified from public housing and student financial aid, lose or find it more difficult to obtain employment, lose custody of their child, and be deported. In addition, the targeted enforcement of marijuana possession laws against people of color creates a community of mistrust and reduced cooperation with the police, which damages public safety. Furthermore, despite being a priority for many police departments across the states for the past decade, the aggressive enforcement of marijuana laws has not even accomplished one of law enforcement’s purported goals: to eradicate or even diminish the use of marijuana.”

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.

“It’s time for Oklahoma to end its participation in the failed war on marijuana,” said Ryan Kiesel, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma. “From the distrust it creates, particularly in communities of color, to the diversion of scarce public safety resources, continuing down this path is not only foolhardy, it actually makes Oklahomans less safe.”

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 organization 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.
To see the full report visit www.aclu.org

[1] In 38 states, this disparity has gotten worse, in two it has remained the same, and in ten the disparities have decreased. Please feel free to amend this sentence so it makes sense and is strategic given your state’s or jurisdiction’s data.