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Column: War on Marijuana Continues Unabated

A new report from the ACLU finds that blacks are arrested for marijuana possession 3.73 times more often than whites nationwide, even though the rate of marijuana use is relatively similar across races. The report, “The War on Marijuana in Black and White,” was released this week; it claims to be the first comprehensive attempt to examine marijuana possession arrest rates, by race and by state, from 2001 to 2010. Its findings are further evidence that the “war on marijuana” is expensive, inefficient, and racially biased — and that it probably won’t be ending anytime soon.

The recent decriminalization of marijuana possession for personal use in Colorado and Washington state might seem to indicate that national attitudes toward the drug are liberalizing. But the ACLU report shows that Colorado and Washington are exceptions.

The report finds that between 2001 and 2010, there were over 8 million marijuana arrests in the United States, 88 percent of which were for possession. Marijuana arrests have increased between 2001 and 2010 and now account for over half (52 percent) of all drug arrests in the United States, and marijuana possession arrests account for nearly half (46 percent) of all drug arrests. In 2010, there was one marijuana arrest every 37 seconds, and states spent combined over $3.6 billion enforcing marijuana possession laws.

Marijuana use rates are roughly equal for blacks and whites. But minorities are the ones being arrested: “In 2010, the black arrest rate for marijuana possession was 716 per 100,000, while the white arrest rate was 192 per 100,000. Stated another way, a black person was 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person — a disparity that increased 32.7 percent between 2001 and 2010.”

After reading through the report, it’s not hard to understand why this is happening. In general, cops tend to focus their attention on neighborhoods with high rates of crime. Those neighborhoods tend to be populated by members of low-income minority groups. Cops patrolling those neighborhoods are often empowered to stop and frisk residents on the slimmest of pretexts, and, because of that, they are likelier to find people who are carrying marijuana. So, to bring the crime rate down, they will arrest people on these marijuana possession charges, which helps foster the impression that poor neighborhoods have high rates of crime. It’s a stupid, self-perpetuating cycle.

You can blame a lot of this on the controversial “broken windows” theory of policing, which essentially maintains that minor violations beget major ones, and that you can combat violent crime by rigorously enforcing small quality-of-life offenses. You can also blame data-driven police initiatives like COMPSTAT, which meticulously track crime statistics on a precinct-by-precinct basis. In theory, programs like COMPSTAT are supposed to promote accountability, and a more precise deployment of police resources. In practice, they put cops under tremendous pressure to show continuous improvement in their precincts, and, as such, condone arrest quotas, stop-and-frisk policies, and other tactics that look good on the stat sheets.

But you can also blame the federal government. While the current federal drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, has spoken about the need to treat marijuana use as a public health matter rather than a strictly criminal one, others in the federal government aren’t nearly as progressive. The ACLU report talks about a federal program called the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant, which doles out funding to police departments in large part based on the number of drug arrests they make. With municipal budgets strapped, police departments depend on these sorts of federal grants.

The “public health” approach to marijuana will never be viable as long as grant funding and similar programs are essential to departments’ well-being.

The ACLU report shouldn’t really come as news to anyone who has been paying attention to federal drug policy over the past 30 years. But it’s still a valuable reminder that, though liberalization advocates have seen a series of victories in Colorado, Washington and elsewhere, the war on drugs is far from over.

Justin Peters writes Slate’s crime blog.