Commentary: The Racial Politics of Pot Arrests

Though marijuana is still illegal in most places in America, the racial disparity in pot busts paints a clear picture of two different Americas: one for whites, and one for others.

Posted: 07/25/2012 07:00 AM EDT
marijuana

With debates about legalizing marijuana raging as hot as ever, and more states attempting to at least allow medical marijuana, the fact remains that, in most places, having pot is a criminal act. In 2010 alone, police made more than 850,000 marijuana-related arrests, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Report. Marijuana arrests now account for about 52 percent of all drug arrests in the United States, resulting in the fact that about one out of every eight prisoners in American jails are there for crimes related to marijuana. In a word, America’s policies when it comes to pot are irrational. But things get even worse when you put race in the mix.

 

Despite the fact that whites smoke marijuana more often than Blacks and Latinos, when it comes to arrests for the drug, Blacks and Latinos are nabbed far more frequently than their white counterparts. In New York City, for instance, which leads the nation in pot busts, nearly 90 percent of the almost 500,000 people who have been charged with misdemeanor pot possession in New York have been Black or Latino. Elsewhere, the arrest rates for pot are racially biased in the same way. In California, for instance, every single county in the state arrests Blacks for marijuana possession more often than whites. In LA it’s seven times the rate of whites, while in Torrance it’s nearly 14 times the rate.

 

If you think this is no big deal, and that this is simply Blacks getting rightly punished for bad behavior, you should consider that it’s wrong for Blacks to be profiled for pot possession despite the fact that they statistically use marijuana less. You should also think about how a simple pot bust can injure a life. Once a person is arrested for marijuana, they’re in the system, which can have a detrimental effect on them forever. Speaking to the New York Times in June about the NYPD’s controversial "stop and frisk" policies, through which a lot of the city’s pot arrests come, the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Donna Lieberman noted that a minor pot bust isn’t minor for many Black and Latino kids.

 

“For individuals who have any kind of a record, even a minuscule one, the obstacles are enormous to employment and to education,” she said. “When it’s really a huge number of kids in the community who go through this, and all have the same story, the impact is just devastating.”

 

As Lieberman notes, it’s unsurprising that many kids who’ve had their futures jeopardized by a simple pot charge, thereby losing many opportunities to get an education and employment, have a hard time coming back from the blow. Because when you’re not allowed to go to school or get a decent job, what are you expected to do to get by? Is it really all that shocking when people turn to alcohol, more drugs and more crime?

 

If we want a just world in which every person gets a real opportunity at success, we need to recognize that most criminals aren’t born, they’re made. And in thousands of cases, they’re initially put on the path to failure with a pot arrest.

 

 
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

 

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