Blacks were arrested at a rate of 537 per 100,000 people nationally in 2001. In 2010, their arrest rate rose to 716 per 100,000. The 2001 number for White people was 191 per 100,00 and rose to 192 per 100,000 in 2010, the ACLU said. Despite the disparate rates, far more whites were arrested for marijuana possession in 2010, 460,808 compared to Blacks, 286,117.
Ezekiel Edwards, lead author of the ACLU study, attributed the disparate arrest rates to racial profiling by police seeking to pad their arrest numbers with “low-level” arrests in “certain communities that they have kind of labeled as problematic.”
“While this country moves in some ways in a more progressive direction on marijuana policy in a lot of places, in other places, people are getting handcuffed, jailed and getting criminal records at racially disparate rates all around the country,” Edwards said.
Police simply operate from the standpoint that “the use of marijuana is a crime,” said Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police.
“We will try to educate our membership, to the extent the statistics are valid, to be aware (that) people other than Blacks are smoking marijuana and to arrest them too,” said Pasco, who had not yet seen the ACLU report.
Arthur Burnett Sr., a retired judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, said his 40 years on the bench showed him that police concentrate their numbers in Black communities. It’s easier to catch people with marijuana in communities where there are “open-air” drug markets, rather than looking in homes, basements or country clubs, said Burnett. He is the CEO of the National African American Drug Policy Coalition based in Washington.
Burnett said some Black defendants, distrustful of authorities, may lash out, use profanities or be rebellious — behavior that makes it more likely that an officer will make an arrest. Burnett said his coalition supports forming a commission to look at scientific evidence on the effect of marijuana use and “overcriminalization” of it.
The commission would determine whether to treat marijuana like tobacco, in which people are warned about consequences of its use. It would also examine the harshness of penalties for using pot.
“We don’t need to treat it like heroin and cocaine,” Burnett said.