The Racism Behind Marijuana Possession Arrests In America

As columnist Jim Dwyer once wrote for The New York Times, “Whites smoke pot, but blacks are arrested”. Unsurprisingly, this belief has recently turned out to be  true, when in 2013 several studies (Release UK & Wales, Amnesty International Netherlands, American Civil Liberties Union) across the world showed that black people are arrested for drug offences at higher rates than white people.

The War on Marijuana in Black and White, a report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) published in June 2013, shed a light on this trend, which is particularly pronounced in the US. According to the experts, in 2010, states spent over $3.6 billion combined enforcing marijuana possession laws in the country. As a result, the overall number of arrests for marijuana possession was 784,021. However, the white arrest rate was 192 per 100.000 whites, which has remained constant throughout the past decade, whereas the black arrest rate was 716 per 100.000, as opposed to 537 per 100,000 in 2001. In general, black people are therefore 3.73 times more likely to be arrested than white people. Is it possible that blacks smoke more pot than whites then?

While police seem to assume so, the paper also reveals that marijuana use among blacks and whites is roughly the same from 2001 to 2010, although the rates of white users aged between 18 and 25 are slightly higher. Clearly, there must be an explanation for this.

In order to understand this tendency, the study provides an interesting clarification that leaves no room for misinterpretation: most people were not arrested for smoking marijuana, but rather because small amounts—not enough to constitute a drug dealing offence—were found on them. This, logically, implies that police intentionally used their authority to stop and search people, often illegally, on suspicion of hiding illegal drugs. Suspicion that, given the racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests, must have derived from the skin color of the offenders.

The racial prejudice behind these questionable law enforcement practices, which allegedly prompts police officers to approach and arrest far more black people than white people, has serious and often irreversible consequences. As the ACLU study reports, sentences for marijuana possession have cost offenders their jobs, college education, thousands of dollars in fines and, only ultimately, jail time. In other words, they impose real hardship on the same people that law enforcers are biased against.

This being said, the study suggests two obvious and contentious considerations. In the first place, it seems absurd that in the 21st century this unconscious, yet not less dangerous form of racism is still widespread. We pride ourselves on living in a multicultural and tolerant society, yet we feel the urge to keep a special eye on those who “you know are nothing but trouble”. Secondly, like it or not, every single American taxpayer has unintentionally contributed to the this massive discrimination, in spite of the fact that the majority of Americans have declared to be in favor of decriminalization. And all the people that have been sentenced for marijuana possession, whose vast majority happens to be black, are the way the government is repaying your faith. Rejoice, America.