Skip to content
The racism of marijuana prohibition
The Times' Aug. 30 article, "Marijuana’s new high life," does a great job describing the cultural mainstreaming of marijuana. Pot is indeed flourishing in "civilized society" as never before, and the movement to end decades of failed prohibition has picked up unprecedented momentum. But that debate has largely ignored the people most impacted by our current policies -- the rising number of people, particularly young people of color, arrested on marijuana charges each year.
According to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ), the arrest rate for all offenses in California sank by 40% from 1990 to 2008, with arrests for rape and murder falling by more than 60% each. Drug possession arrests for everything but marijuana collectively fell by nearly 30% in the same period. Meanwhile, arrests for marijuana possession have skyrocketed -- up 127%. This rise in marijuana arrests is the ultimate outlier.
California made a major step toward decriminalizing low-level pot possession in 1975, when it made possession of less than an ounce a misdemeanor punishable with a fine and no jail time. That didn't stop law enforcement from arresting more than 74,000 people last year -- the highest number since the 1975 law took effect. More than 80% of those arrests were for misdemeanor possession, the lowest-level offense.
Not surprisingly, given the way drug laws are traditionally enforced in this country, the burden has fallen disproportionately on people of color, and on young black men in particular. According to the CJCJ, half of California's marijuana possession arrestees were nonwhite in 1990 and 28% were under age 20. Last year, 62% were nonwhite and 42% were under age 20. Marijuana possession arrests of youth of color rose from about 3,100 in 1990 to about 16,300 in 2008 -- an arrest surge 300% greater than the rate of population growth in that group.
Even more disturbing, African Americans account for an even higher portion of all marijuana felony arrests. Blacks make up less than 7% of the state population but 22% of people arrested for all marijuana offenses and 33% of all marijuana felony arrests. More African Americans are arrested in California for marijuana felonies than are whites, even though whites are six times more represented in the state population.
The overrepresentation of African Americans is not explained by use rates. According to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the percentage of African Americans and whites who use marijuana over any 30-day period are similar. However, for the 18-25 age group -- which constitutes a substantial proportion of marijuana arrests -- African Americans regularly use marijuana at rates lower than whites (16.5% and 18.4%, respectively), indicating that their overrepresentation may be even more profound.
Many people convicted of a marijuana felony may not go to prison; they are likely to spend some time in jail before trial and then be sentenced to felony probation. They may not be in San Quentin, but they have been brought under the supervision of the criminal justice system -- one of the single greatest predictors of future imprisonment. An 18-year-old convicted of a felony is headed nowhere fast. In this sense at least, marijuana is indeed a gateway drug; it is a feeder for the criminal justice system, disproportionately for black kids.
So while the purported mainstream is delighting to "Weeds" and contemplating the new revenue that state-regulated marijuana would generate, there's even greater urgency to ending the prohibition of marijuana. California can't wait any longer to end the racist enforcement of marijuana laws.
Stephen Gutwillig is the California state director of the Drug Policy Alliance.