White people between the ages of 18 and 25 use marijuana at a higher rate than their black peers, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, so you would naturally assume that young white people would also have a higher arrest rate for marijuana possession than young black people. But that’s not the case. A report released last week found that police in California’s biggest cities arrest blacks for possession at four, five and even 13 times the rate of whites. It is this unequal enforcement of the marijuana laws — and the consequences for the African American community — that have led the California NAACP, along with the National Black Police Assn., to support Proposition 19. This page opposes Proposition 19, but regardless of whether the measure succeeds or fails, the racial inequity is real and should not continue unaddressed.
According to the new study, issued jointly by the California NAACP and the Drug Policy Alliance, blacks in Los Angeles are arrested for possession of marijuana at seven times the rate of whites; in San Diego, at six times the rate. In Torrance, the numbers are particularly striking, with blacks arrested at 13.8 times the rate of whites. Indeed, the phenomenon occurs in every county in the state and involves almost every police department. The upshot for those arrested, even if they don’t end up in prison, is a permanent record that has lifelong consequences. Most marijuana possession arrests do not lead to long prison sentences these days, but having an arrest record and the stigma of being a “drug offender” negatively affects opportunities for employment and housing and higher education. Such information also is visible to credit agencies, licensing boards and banks. California recently downgraded the charge to an infraction — a positive step — but collateral damage is still likely; the low-income people most commonly arrested would have the most difficulty paying the fines for the infraction — and failure to do so would bring the charge back to a misdemeanor.
Why are blacks arrested at such disproportionate rates? The report concludes that it’s not personal prejudice or racism on the part of police officers. The NAACP says it is the result of the long-standing strategy of saturating minority communities with officers who then overzealously stop and frisk people. Were such a strategy pursued in a white community, a high number of arrests would result there as well. The police say they are simply trying protect the citizens in high-crime areas.
Supporters of Proposition 19 say the solution is to legalize marijuana for all. But that’s addressing a symptom, not the problem. The real culprit is not marijuana laws but policing practices that vary wildly from community to community. That’s why Proposition 19 is not the answer.