City Desk

Racism: One More Reason to Legalize Pot

In D.C. Superior Court on Tuesday, 36 people were scheduled to be arraigned for carrying marijuana. The alleged offenders were collared by police for marijuana possession in the latter half of July and the beginning of August, and faced up to six months in prison time and up to $1,000 in fines. Court records indicate prosecutors are going ahead with 18 of the cases.

Eleven of the citations were given in predominantly black police districts east of the Anacostia River. Only one was issued in the Second Police District, which contains some of D.C.'s whitest neighborhoods. That snapshot of the District's criminal justice landscape would seem to reflect past statistics, which say black residents are eight times more likely to be arrested for sparking a blunt than their white counterparts.

That's despite the fact that the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use & Health says whites and blacks use marijuana at near equal rates: 9.6 percent of blacks 12 and older use pot, and 8.8 percent of whites.

One theory as to why black residents are apprehended on pot charges more often involves how the two populations both smoke and acquire their weed. Whites tend to light up and deal inside their homes, and blacks on the street, goes the thinking.

Court records for some of those arrested east of the river back that belief up. They describe vice officers spotting suspects engaging in open-air blazing or buying from street corner dealers. One subject "was walking down the street smoking a brown cigar" when cops spotted him. The recklessness involved would seem to disqualify disparate rates of marijuana arrests in the city as a civil rights issue: Black smokers are choosing to be flagrant about their pot use and so attracting the attention of cops who have no choice but to grab them.

But even if assumptions about smoking and dealing habits are solid, that doesn't mean there's no problem with the way marijuana laws are currently being enforced in black and white neighborhoods. Taking my own experience as an African American who grew up poor into account, I remember some family and friends who puffed outside—whether that involved a pack of Kools or a joint meticulously sculpted from Top rolling papers—out of respect for others in their household, particularly where there was more than one generation (and therefore more than one set of moral values) under one roof. Dealing inside the house would have been all the more inappropriate. Although that's certainly not the situation for every black person who tokes up or does a hand-off in Ward 7 or Ward 8, the idea is that you can't just assume they're being belligerent, and therefore asking for repercussions.

Police do seem to be obligated to arrest you once they catch a sight of a spliff, as a matter of policy in the District. Police Chief Cathy Lanier says her department isn't pushing marijuana arrests at this time, but if ”we encounter someone in possession of marijuana, we are obligated to make an arrest."

Still, there are plenty of crimes, like jaywalking (which gets sporadic enforcement) that cops regularly ignore, despite the law. When the crime is so minor and ubiquitous that making a big deal about it would do more harm than good, officers typically walk on.

The federal survey on drug stats says that marijuana use—which has been approved for medical purposes in the District—may be a misdemeanor, but it's certainly become ubiquitous. An "estimated 104 million Americans aged 12 or older have tried marijuana at least once in their lifetimes." I doubt law enforcement is interested in arresting all those people, so why swoop into black D.C.?

When black people bear the brunt of marijuana arrests, the prime suspect ends up being the country's teetering but still functional mechanism of racial oppression. The fix is obvious: Legalize marijuana, and the problem disappears. Or at least this manifestation of it does.

Photo by via Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

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  • Alex

    I don't smoke myself, but I'm all for legalization, or at least decriminalization.

    However, the facts presented in this article don't back up the claim of racism in its headline and its conclusion. The facts presented within the article point to a cultural difference being responsible for the disparity: smoking outside vs smoking inside. While the article does a great job theorizing as to why, it never connects it to racism. Therefore, the concluding statement (more black people being arrested = racism) doesn't make any sense. I'd be willing to wager that if the cultural thing was reversed, and more whites tended to smoke outside, we'd see more whites arrested for possession.

    Maybe there is some sort of racism involved, but it's certainly not presented in this article, despite the headline claiming the contrary. It's rather disingenuous to the concept of racism to call it without actually backing it up, and going a totally different direction with the presented facts.

  • Ben

    I think this might be one of the worst articles ever written, in fact, its literally dumber than smoking pot in front of a cop. Getting caught smoking pot in public is so stupid. If your smoking in view of a cop, you absolutely deserve to get caught, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or gender. This blows my mind more than Will Nelsons stash as to how stupid this is. Pot should be legal, your right, but its articles like this that keep it illegal...

  • Tom

    Find out why more and more cops, judges, and prosecutors who have fought on the front lines of the "war on drugs" are standing up and saying we need to legalize and regulate all drugs to help solve our economic, crime, and public health problems:

  • Pingback: Weed Arrests and Racial Disparities | DCentric

  • BigJohn

    The truth is somewhere in the middle on this one. I'm a lawyer. About 75% or more of my business is criminal defense. I've handled over 2,000 criminal cases over the years. I live in Arkansas, and I know how the system works here at least. Blacks are arrested more than whites because cops patrol inner city areas more than the suburbs, and yeah, cops are much more likely to stop blacks than whites.

    I've even had cops tell me they are more likely to stop blacks than whites. I first heard the term "DWB" (Driving While Black) from a cop I was talking to in court one time as we sat there waiting for our cases to be called. He said if he's in the rougher part of our town and sees a car with four black males in it, odds are if he pulls them over he's going to find drugs, weapons, and/or one or more will have warrants for their arrest, so he tries to find reasons to pull them over if he isn't busy with something else. And cops do pull people over for no reason sometimes. Some will just make something up. Others are honest enough to at least keep looking for any little reason to pull a car over. Blacks and Hispanics are just more likely to be pulled over than whites, especially if the whites drive decent vehicles and look like tax paying law abiding suburban types.

    You mentioned statistics showing that blacks really aren't any more likely than whites to use drugs. It is true that use rates are around the same for blacks and whites. While the fact that blacks are so much more likely to be arrested for drug crimes than whites is alarming looking at the drug use statistics, it's much more alarming when you factor in that blacks only comprise about 12.5% of our population in this country. Then, wow, when you look at how many are arrested, how many go to prison, it's clear that something just isn't right.

    We don't have a lot of blacks where I live. In fact in the next county over they don't close their county courthouse for Martin Luther King day. The sign on the door says the courthouse is closed for Robert E. Lee day. Blacks are something like .03% of their population, and around 8.5% in my town, less in my county overall. Most all of our cops are white, and all of them are white in the next county over. We have no black judges or prosecutors in a several county area. And I can tell you without a doubt in my mind that there is bias against blacks in the criminal justice system in my area. They're more likely to get stopped by the police. They're more likely to get arrested, and it's harder to get good deals from the prosecutors when your client is black. It just is. Our juries are selected from voter registration lists and often none of the pool called in for us to select from are black, and if there are a handful in the pool usually none will make it onto the panel of twelve jurors who hears the case, especially if the defendant is black. Most all cases are resloved with plea bargains, but in negotiations it is a heck of a lot easier to get the prosecutor to identify with your white client (if not a total thug) than a black client and want to give the guy a break. Blacks have it much worse than whites in the system.

    It's interesting that you say blacks are more likely to smoke in public because of housing conditions. I can see how that might be true. Not only might there be several generations living under one roof, but also poor blacks in particular are more likely to live in apartments or at least small homes that are close together and it's probably harder to find a private place to smoke. I see kind of the same thing with young people caught smoking pot. The overwhelming majority get caught because they are smoking it in their cars. I've talked to a lot of young people about this, and it turns out that a big part of the reason why so many smoke in their cars is because they don't really have anywhere else to smoke it. They can't smoke it at home with their parents there. So they do it in their cars or somewhere else out in public where they are much more likely to get caught.

    Me, I live in a nice neighborhood where cops only drive through every once in a while for appearances sake. I tend to smoke my weed in my detached garage and I'm far enough from any neighbors that I really don’t have anything to worry about. :) I hate to say it but it is true. Guys like me can have our weed delivered to us. We'd never buy it on the street. We can smoke it at home every day for decades and never get caught. We can take it to our lake houses without worrying about being pulled over for no reason because we drive nice cars and look clean cut and respectable and the cops just don't mess with us unless we are obviously doing something wrong. (I don't smoke everyday, by the way. It's a waste of time. But I have smoked for over 30 years and have never come close to getting caught.)

  • BigJohn

    I'm adding some numbers here I should have put in my last post. I just looked at the latest (2009) National Survey on Drug Use and Health that the federal government puts out every year. (The 2010 report won't come out till mid September even though the survey was done last summer with in home interviews and all data was collected on computers capable of uploading the data pretty much instantly). According to the federal data, in 2009 about 19.63 millions non-Hispanic whites smoked pot in 2009 compared to only about 3.77 million non-Hispanic blacks and 3.8 million Hispanics (of any race). Why is it then that blacks are several times as likely than whites to be arrested for low level pot offenses when several times as many whites than blacks smoke pot?

  • DC

    Small quibble: you say that marijuana use is equal across white and black populations and then assume that that means that its use is equal across DC's white and black population. But I doubt that marijuana use is equal throughout the white and black populations. And since the economic demographics of DC's white and black population are so different, I would be hesitant to assume that what's true for national use-rates is true for insular populations here.

    But that said, I think your larger point is correct. For a variety of reasons, blacks who smoke marijuana are more likely to be arrested than whites who do. Personally I think we should legalize pot because it's not harmful and enforcing the law is a huge drain on our resources.

  • SmithMcSmithy

    The equation the author seems to be presenting here is 'black people + drug use + idiocy = legalize marijuana." Wow. We should legalize marijuana because cops are racist? Many cops would argue - EFF the Constitution! - that these stats just demonstrate the wisdom of being able to stop ANYONE with any cause for suspicion at all. I mean, if stats are reflective of objective reality, a certain percentage of everyone stopped with have SOMETHING illegal on them, right?

    The only valid reasons for legalizing marijuana are the following:

    1. The financial and social costs of enforcement far outwiegh the costs of non-enforcement.

    2. The science demonstrates that marijuana is as reasonably safe as a recreational substance can be. It's safer than skiing, and many times safer than consuming alcohol or even taking ibuprofen or any number of a bazillion prescribed controlled substances.

    3. A majority of the voting public want the laws changed.

    It's sad that legalization advocates (I'm one of them) would EVER try to argue by way of irrational emotional appeals, or appeals to unprovable statements (e.g. 'the justice system is racist').

  • Will


    I have to take issue with this statistic:

    "That's despite the fact that the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use & Health says whites and blacks use marijuana at near equal rates: 9.6 percent of blacks 12 and older use pot, and 8.8 percent of whites."

    That's certainly true nationally, but is not representative of DC, whose white population is the most well-educated and upwardly mobile in the country.

    I lived in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, both of which have large low-class white populations. Pot smoking is endemic to both cities in a major way, and you have all pathologies that go along with that, white street gangs, drive-bys, domestic violence. When was the last time you saw a white street gang in DC?

    One other observation, even among the well educated whites in both those western towns, pot smoking was common, tacitly accepted among professionals, discussed openly, and smoked openly at parties. I have never been at a party in DC (attended by members of all races, but all well-educated professionals) where that was the case. What we talk about is a general approval of the legalization movement for reasons of social justice, equity, medical necessity and economy (*pushes glasses back up bridge of nose). If my colleagues are blazing, they're keeping it on the DL.

    Per the comment from Arkansas, I agree that enforcement has elements of bias, either implicit or explicit, and I think there's something to your theory on multi-generational households and urban v. suburban living arrangements. I just don't think that holds for DC, and believe white pot usage is much lower in this city than the national statistic represents.

  • Jason

    If we legalize drugs I want more personal responsibility from the drug users. If you fuck yourself up on drugs and can't get your life together oh well. Your an adult and you made a choice. Live or die with it. I don't want government paying for your rehab. Government isn'r responsible for putting fat people on diets and we shouldn't have to provide rehab or methadone to strung out adult addicts.

  • K

    Re: how much of the white population in DC are smoking pot: a large number of white people here are government workers, and can't risk a negative drug test, so that may artificially depress the number of older white professionals who smoke. Among younger white office workers and grad students (cough, cough) I've never been to a party that *didn't* have marijuana available, if only to a select group.

  • BigJohn

    Will, maybe you're right, but I kind of doubt it. SAMHSA just released their new state data on drug use. There is data for DC just as there is for the 50 states. DC has the highest overall alcohol and drug abuse numbers for the nation and is in the top five for marijuana use with over 14% of DC residents reporting past year use. It has some of the lowest 12 to 17 year old cocaine use numbers but among the highest for persons 26 years and older. Over 10% of those 26 and older reported past year marijuana use, a good bit higher than the national average for those 26 and older. Drug use is apparently very common in DC. Are blacks the ones doing all the drugs?

    In your personal experience you've been places where marijuana use is common, where it is openly smoked at parties, but you don't see that in DC. I don't know what type of work you do but apparently you are some type of educated professional and probably associate with similarly situated people in your social life. I have to wonder if you were younger when you lived in Los Angeles and Vegas? There is a big difference between a college party and a party of older professionals. Younger people are more reckless. I also wonder if maybe the reason you don't see as much open use of marijuana in DC is that DC has a pretty transient population, even among professional/academic types, and a party there will more often have people that are more or less strangers that pot smokers wouldn't feel comfortable smoking around.

    I'm a middle aged guy and have to admit I don't go to a lot of parties anymore, but I do sometimes and even here I don't see a lot of open pot use at parties where there are many professional types in attendance. That doesn't mean none of these people smoke pot though. We're just quite a bit more discreet about it than the average Joe. We either just wouldn't smoke it at all if we were going to a party, or maybe a couple of us would sneak off somewhere and smoke after everyone else is pretty buzzed on alcohol and most of the really straight laced people have left. I know a few lawyers and other professionals in my town who smoke pot, and I'm sure there are a lot who smoke pot who haven't shared that fact with me just as I don't share the fact that I smoke with anyone but close friends I've known a long time. If I'm offered pot by people I don't know or around people I don't know, I'll turn it down. People love to talk about the pot smoking lawyer they know, and that's not really the way I want to be known in my small town. If you met me, you'd never dream I smoke weed. I have the fresh faced bright athletic clean cut golden boy look and demeanor.

    DC has some of the highest pot use numbers in the nation. I can't find a study where they show use rates by racial demographics for DC, but I have a hard time believing that the breakdown is that much different than it is for the rest of the nation. I suspect that professional types there are even more discreet about than elsewhere because it’s a town where people really worry about appearances and even the professional population there is pretty transient, so when out in public among other professionals the ones who smoke pot are often going to be around people they don't know or trust well enough to smoke pot in front of them. They don't know how open minded you are or the other people there they barely know on a personal level.

  • Brandt Hardin

    Marijuana is the safest drug with actual benefits for the user as opposed to alcohol which is dangerous, causes addiction, birth defects, and affects literally every organ in the body. Groups are organizing all over the country to speak their minds on reforming pot laws. I drew up a very cool poster for the cause which you can check out on my artist’s blog at Drop in and let me know what you think!