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Saturday, Dec 27, 2014
Commentary

Racism infects enforcement of drug laws

BY HOWARD SIMON
Special to The Tribune

Published:

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Last week the American Civil Liberties Union issued a report ("The War on Marijuana in Black and White: Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests" www.aclu.org/marijuana) confirming what everyone suspected: Marijuana possession arrests are wasteful, destructive and marred by racial bias.

The report, the first ever examining state and county marijuana arrest rates nationally by race, documents that while there were pronounced racial disparities in marijuana arrests 10 years ago - the problem has become significantly worse.

Over the last 20 years, in communities across the country, police have turned much of their zeal for fighting the misguided "War on Drugs" towards the enforcement of marijuana laws - and that has disproportionately been a war on people of color. State and local police have aggressively enforced marijuana laws selectively against black people, ensnaring hundreds of thousands of people in the criminal justice system at tremendous human and financial cost.

Nationwide, between 2001 and 2010, there were 8.2 million marijuana arrests. Over 7 million (88 percent) were for possession - not for the sale or distribution. In 2010 alone, there were over 889,000 marijuana arrests - 300,000 more than arrests for all violent crimes combined that year.

In 2010, somewhere in America, there was one marijuana arrest every 37 seconds.

Florida police officers made 57,951 arrests for marijuana possession in 2010, which amounted to 92 percent of all marijuana arrests for any reason.

Marijuana possession arrests were 40.9 percent of all drug arrests. In the past 10 years, the arrest rate for marijuana possession has risen 11.4 pecent, and the racial disparities in these arrests have increased 15 percent.

A handful of Florida counties rank in the 25 highest numbers of marijuana possession arrests. These include Miami-Dade, Broward and Orange. In Sarasota, per 100,000 people, blacks are 10 times more likely than whites to be arrested for possession while they only constitute 4.9 percent in a population of 380,043. The numbers show that 1,199 blacks were arrested for marijuana possession while only 120 whites were arrested.

Despite the fact that the marijuana usage rates by whites and blacks are comparable, a black person was more than 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person. The figures are more disturbing in Florida: Here, a black person is 4.2 times more likely to be arrested for possession.

These racial disparities exist in all regions of the country, in large and small counties, cities and rural areas, and in both high and low-income communities. Disparities are consistently high whether blacks make up a small or a large percentage of a county's overall population.

Compounding the shame of the documented racial bias in the enforcement of the nation's drug laws, drug arrests also waste money.

In 2010, police in Florida - state and local police combined - spent more than $228.6 million on the enforcement of marijuana laws.

Enforcement of marijuana laws also devastate lives: An arrest can disqualify someone from public housing and student financial aid. It can cost someone their job or custody of their child, and because of Florida's Jim Crow felon disfranchisement policy, even the right to vote.

This record of enforcement against people of color also creates mistrust of the police, and increases tensions between police and the communities they serve - compromising cooperation and public safety.

It is past time to change both strategy and goal: states should legalize the use and possession of marijuana. Its production, distribution, and possession for persons 21 or older should be licensed and regulated. States should tax marijuana sales, and remove criminal and civil penalties for such activities.

If our lawmakers don't have the courage to acknowledge that it is time for legalization, at least they can consider depenalizing, decriminalizing or deprioritizing marijuana possession.

Depenalizing would remove all civil and criminal penalties for use and possession for persons 21 or older.

Decriminalizing would replace all criminal penalties for use and possession of small amounts of marijuana by adults and youth with a civil penalty or a small fine.

Deprioritizing would mean police and prosecutors simply lower the priority for the enforcement of marijuana possession laws and focus on preventing and solving crimes that truly harm our communities.

At a time when states are facing budget shortfalls, regulating and taxing marijuana would save millions of dollars. If we stopped wasting money on enforcement, we could invest more in public schools and community and public health programs - and drug treatment.

More than anything else, this would eliminate racially-targeted enforcement of our nation's marijuana laws.

Howard Simon is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. He is based in Miami.

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