City Desk

D.C.’s Race Disparity in Marijuana Charges Is Getting Worse

This weekend, dozens of marijuana activists converged on the National Mall to celebrate 4/20 and push for the drug's legalization. If photos and videos are any indication, most of the attendees were white. As a black man, I find their efforts laudable and hearteningly altruistic. D.C.'s campaign against marijuana is racist. If it wasn't, District marijuana enforcement would look a lot less abominable.

In 2010, I wrote about how Jon Gettman, a public policy professor at Shenandoah University, pored through the city's 2007 marijuana arrest records to discover the District had arrested more pot offenders per capita than any other jurisdiction in the country. Gettman also found that the overwhelming majority of pot miscreants the city went after that year—91 percent—was black.

His analysis suggested yet another black-white divide (like the one for income and the one for achievement) driving through the federal city. In 2007, a black person was eight times more likely to be arrested for a District marijuana offense than a white person, even though researchers have exposed what any college pot dealer can tell you from the comfort of his Barcalounger: Members of both racial groups consume cannabis at nearly equal rates.

D.C.'s dope divide is just as striking when you zoom out. According to arrest numbers obtained from the Metropolitan Police Department and crunched by a statistician, between 2005 and 2011, D.C. cops filed 30,126 marijuana offense charges. A staggering number of those—27,560, or 91 percent—were filed against African-Americans. Only 2,097 were filed against whites.

Blame-the-victim folklore contends that pot-arrest asymmetries, which show up in various cities around the country, are about blacks smoking outside and getting their pot on street corners. Recent studies contradict that. And if D.C.'s shameful pot disparity was about anything but racial bias, we'd see it narrowing.

Instead, though the number of black and white pot charges filed fluctuated from year to year, reefer charges filed against blacks rose 6 percent and declined 10 percent for whites between 2005 and 2011.

Over the last decade, the federal city's black population has wavered as its white population shot up. If municipal pot arrests were impartial, that should have equaled more white potheads learning what the inside of a squad car looked like as arrests of black potheads became scarcer. Latinos, moving into the city in steady if not overwhelming numbers, for instance, saw their pot arrests rise 40 percent between 2005 and 2011, from 93 pot charges to 153.

Also, at a time when weed has become another chic amenity, there's a good chance that the city's affluent whites have most of D.C.'s stash. Last year, Washingtonian ran a gleeful article about the massive amount of weed rambling through D.C.'s elite neighborhoods courtesy of drug-dealing stroller moms and tony pot-delivery services. D.C. Urban Institute criminologist John Roman thinks that's a likely scenario: “What I always say on that is, look, drugs are what economists call a normal good, which means that the more money you make, the more of the product you buy.”

The only politician explicitly working to address the dope divide is longshot at-large D.C. Council candidate Paul Zukerberg, who's made marijuana decriminalization part of his platform. He attributes the disparity to cops using stop-and-frisk powers on young black males. "In D.C., we’re giving young people twice as many marijuana arrests as high school diplomas," he writes on his website.

Other D.C. politicians I contacted, like Mayor Vince Gray, wouldn't comment on the matter or didn't return messages. But when I mentioned the dope divide to Police Chief Cathy Lanier (who told the Washington Post she’d tried weed as teen) during an email exchange last year, the top cop seemed concerned. “Broad statement,” she wrote. “Mixed feelings on enforcement here...”

When I tried to get Lanier to say more, she referred me to her spokesperson, who told me that MPD doesn't insert itself into politics.

Cannabis photo via Shutterstock

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  • lovessoldier

    Thank you Mr. Smith. I knew this was going to come to light when the GTown dude got popped for growing and it was DISMISSED. Love my city. White mayor will get us legal weed and a vote in the house. Mark my words.... Sad but true.

  • Stating the Obvious

    "Blame-the-victim folklore contends"

    There's no victims here. Dumb bastards of any race smoking outside, or in their car, etc. where they can get locked up are idiots.

  • IAmNotALiberalDemocrat

    Rend, your article is excellent and thank you for writing on this subject. Race still matters in U.S. society and for those that says it doesn't are living in the 'Twilight Zone'.

    Faints at computer!!!

  • oboe

    "Blame-the-victim folklore contends"

    From the abstract: "We find that racial disparities in drug arrests cannot be explained by differences in drug offending, nondrug offending, or residing in the kinds of neighborhoods likely to have heavy police emphasis on drug offending."

    Since we can't access the text of the study, it's tough to say how, if they are, the researchers are adjusting for this. I do know that in DC the people who smoke dope in my back alley are black and young and fairly open about it. The people who smoke in their homes are older, white, and pretty damned paranoid.

    Oh, and if I see a big group of kids smoking dope in my alley, I call the cops on them, just as my neighbors would have called the cops on me when I was young. If you're going to get high, don't be an idiot: go to a secluded place and do it--not behind someones house in a heavily populated area.

    Maybe there's some distant ward of the city where there are throngs of white young adults getting stoned publicly in alleys, and older black folks are calling the cops on them. I've never been there.

  • oboe

    "Blame-the-victim folklore contends that pot-arrest asymmetries, which show up in various cities around the country, are about blacks smoking outside and getting their pot on street corners. Recent studies contradict that. And if D.C.'s shameful pot disparity was about anything but racial bias, we'd see it narrowing."

    If you're going to wave away the obvious explanation, could you link to some elaboration of these "recent studies"? That are *not* behind a paywall? It would make for a much more convincing argument.

  • http://facebook.com/timetolegalizeit420 Marij A. Wanna

    If the proper research is done, you will find that cannabis was criminalized due in large part to racism. Harry J. Anslinger is the perpetrator there, as well as a federal judge who sided with him after racist slander, exaggeration, and half truths were spouted out of his mouth all in the name of federal funding for the first narcotics bureau in America. Then we move onto the 1970's when Nixon commandeered a team of experts to find out how awful cannabis is for society. Their findings, detailed in the Shafer Report (1972), revealed that to the contrary of Nixon's beliefs, cannabis had no harmful effects on the user or society. What we have here is a replacement for slavery and the concentration camps America lost out on when they were forced to release the Japanese after WWII. Young men and women of every creed and color discriminated against collectively as one culture and this is what they call "Marijuana Prohibition". We as a society need to see through this collectively as one group of people rather than looking to race to distinguish our differences where there are none. We need to be more responsible in our fight as is being motivated here. We need to be smart, and most of all work with the system to bring the laws it created to a halt. This imperialistic vision of a Government is not going away, and while it is restrictive there are ways of changing it within America. I think it is time we took the black and white out of discrimination and take a look at who is really being discriminated against, once again, AN ENTIRE CULTURE OF PEOPLE. Calling us criminals for possessing or using cannabis is prejudice. Enforcing laws and imprisoning us for being those so called "criminals" is the act of acting on prejudice, which is discrimination. It is time to think outside the box.

  • RS

    @Oboe, Wish I could do something about the paywall.

    According to the researchers, they factored in public use as a variable, and the disparities stood.

    I'm not so sure about arguing "young white adults" don't use pot in public. Parks and outdoor concerts tend to offer people of all ilks using quite openly.

  • Stills

    Sure, other things equal, pot arrests should've gone up as more white people moved to Washington, D.C. BUT those white people were predominantly much wealthier than the city's remaining black residents. Wealthy people commit fewer crimes in general and so police are less likely to enter a home in Ward 8 than a home in Ward 2.

    I agree there is a racial element, but much of the disparity comes from discrepancies in income. I'm sure a black resident of a wealthy neighborhood would be much less likely to be caught for marijuana possession than a white person in a poor neighborhood.

  • Malcolm Kyle

    The following facts are indisputable:

    * Our heavily militarized Police force is effectively laying siege to black neighborhoods. This is not happening with the same force and zeal in predominantly white neighborhoods.

    * Afro-Americans do not use drugs at a perceivable higher rate than white Americans.

    * Afro-Americans are being stopped and searched at a far higher frequency than white Americans.

    * Afro-Americans represent just 12.2 % of the population but are 37% of those arrested for drug offenses.

    * Afro-Americans comprise 53% of drug convictions but are just 12.2% of the population.

    * Afro-Americans comprise 67 percent of all people imprisoned for drug offenses but are just 12.2% of the population.

    * One out of three young African American (ages 18 to 35) men are in prison or on some form of supervised release.

    * There are more African American men in prison than in college. That's a four times higher percentage of Black men in prison than South Africa at the height of apartheid. 

    In July 2011 The NAACP passed an "historic" resolution, calling for an end to drug prohibition. Very soon, many other civic organizations, the entire faith community and all persons of good conscience will join the many who are already demanding that this horrific assault on the African-American community be halted immediately. What about YOU?

  • wankerMike

    I guess some people are better at not getting caught?

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  • buckBwild

    Man if only the white people would stopping coming into the hood and selling dope then maybe just maybe my people could succeed

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  • oboe

    RS:

    "I'm not so sure about arguing 'young white adults' don't use pot in public. Parks and outdoor concerts tend to offer people of all ilks using quite openly."

    I don't doubt this nationally, but the demographics of DC proper constitute something of an outlier. I'd guess that the number of AA pot smokers under 20 vastly outnumber white pot smokers under 20. Just because the number of AA's under 20 vastly outnumbers white's under 20.

    Older pot smokers (particularly white collar) are more likely to be careful in their pot buying/consumption, regardless of race. I have no doubt that nationally there's a discrepancy (though this may also be due to socio-economic status). Just that DC is a bad test case.

    Either way our drug laws are ridiculous, and are due for a massive overhaul. No one should be going to jail, or getting a criminal record for use. If society has decided to curtail drug use, it should be treated as a public health issue, not a criminal one.

  • Mike Madden

    @ oboe:

    It seems very unlikely that there are more African Americans under 20 than whites under 20 nationwide, given that African Americans are 11 percent of the population nationwide. The share of African Americans under 20 may be greater than the share of whites under 20, but that's a different stat.

  • Hugs Not Drugs

    I've lived in DC for 8 years and my first experience smelling pot smoke in public occurred 3 weeks ago, several blocks from the National Cathedral. It was a black middle aged guy with dreadlocks walking down the sidewalk smoking pot as if it was no big deal. So, maybe some dumb white people smoke pot too, but I've only seen one person do it openly on the street in full daylight. I was suprised by his stupidity and really expected that he would be arrested if a police car drove by.

  • RS

    @HugsNotDrugs

    "I've lived in DC for 8 years and my first experience smelling pot smoke in public occurred 3 weeks ago, several blocks from the National Cathedral. It was a black middle aged guy with dreadlocks walking down the sidewalk smoking pot as if it was no big deal."

    I'm not exactly sure what we're supposed to take from that. Maybe you're suggesting that one black man represents all? There are a number of reasons why those kinds of generalizations are problematic, not the least of which is that that sort of guilt-by-association thinking animates prejudice.

  • oboe

    @Mike Madden:

    I could've been clearer. I agree that clearly you're right. That was actually my point: "...the demographics of DC proper constitute something of an outlier. [IN DC] I'd guess that the number of AA pot smokers under 20 vastly outnumber white pot smokers under 20. Just because the number of AA's under 20 vastly outnumbers white's under 20 [IN DC]."

    In other words, nationally there are a lot more young whites (and more smoking pot). In the District, I'd be shocked if the raw numbers of young blacks don't dwarf the number of young whites.

  • RS

    @oboe

    I think focusing on those between 18 and 24 would be most useful, since, glancing at the data, that age group took on the largest share of marijuana busts. And the OJJDP Statistical Briefing Book (http://ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/ezapop/asp/profile_display.asp) shows that in 2011, D.C.'s white 18-to-24-year-olds (41,541) outnumbered its black 18-to-24-year-olds (37,657).

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  • cesar

    I was enjoying the important information about racial prejudice in this article until I ran into this sentence:

    "Latinos, moving into the city in steady if not overwhelming numbers..."

    You should try to keep your own prejudices out of it.

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  • Mike Madden

    @ cesar:

    I don't believe "if not overwhelming" was intended to carry any racial subtext. The line meant to point out that the Latino population in D.C. is growing, but not fast enough to account for the 40 percent increase in arrests of Latinos on pot charges.

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  • http://tristickvape.com/shop/tristick-dry-herbs-attachment-2/ Dry Herb Vaporizer

    This is seriously getting worse.

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