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California’s Proposition 19: Fundamentally An Issue of Racial Justice

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July 27, 2010

The ACLU’s three California affiliates last week all officially endorsed Proposition 19, an initiative on the state’s November ballot that would allow adults age 21 and over to possess and grow small amounts of their own marijuana for personal use, and would allow cities and counties to regulate and tax commercial sales. Unless individual cities and counties enact local regulatory structures, the sale of marijuana would remain illegal under state law. The endorsements are an affirmation that Prop. 19’s passage would go great lengths toward dismantling one of the defining injustices of our nation’s “war on drugs”: across the country, people of color, particularly youth of color, are disproportionately arrested for low level marijuana possession. This reality has resulted in widespread harassment of and distrust among communities of color of law enforcement, as well as diversion of critical court and law enforcement resources that could otherwise be used to solve violent crimes.

Indeed, California voters grappling with Proposition 19 face a decision that extends well beyond the simple question of whether to legalize marijuana. In light of the disproportionate arrests of people of color for marijuana possession, many are seeing Prop 19 as a racial justice issue. If passed, Prop 19 would eliminate a significant source of racially-biased policing while redirecting resources to law enforcement to solve violent crimes.

A Drug Policy Alliance study published last month shows with clear statistical evidence just how nefarious the disproportionate arrests of people of color for marijuana possession are. Nationally, whites have been found to use marijuana at far greater rates than either blacks or Hispanics. Yet in the 25 largest counties in California, for example, blacks are usually arrested for marijuana charges at double, triple or quadruple the rate at which whites are arrested. In Los Angeles County alone, with a population of 10 million, blacks are arrested for marijuana charges at a rate 332 percent higher then the arrest rate for whites. Blacks make up 10 percent of the population of Los Angeles County, but comprise 30 percent of those arrested for marijuana possession

Conditions are the same in New York City under Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s problematic policies criminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana. New York Times columnist Jim Dwyer last week compared two disparate regions of New York City, the Upper East Side and Brownsville in Brooklyn, and reports a huge gap between the frequency of marijuana related arrests in each location. For the years 2007, 2008 and 2009, 20 people for every 100,000 were arrested on the Upper East Side in comparison with the rate of 3,109 for every 100,000 in Brownsville. Additionally, almost nine out of 10 people arrested were black or Latino. In a report on marijuana related police policies in New York City by Harry G. Levine and Deborah Peterson Small, it is shown that between the years of 1997 and 2007, Hispanics were arrested for marijuana charges at a rate three times higher than whites, and blacks were arrested at a rate five times higher.

In other cities all across the country, from Atlanta to Indianapolis, and from San Francisco to Buffalo, people of color are arrested for marijuana possession at rates as high as 10 times greater than whites.

Though marijuana arrests alone do not typically result in extensive jail sentences, once someone is entangled in the criminal justice system, it is likely that he or she will have additional encounters with the law. Once a drug charge appears on a background check, one’s professional, educational and housing opportunities are severely limited. By targeting Black and Hispanic communities, and specifically young men, this law enforcement strategy helps funnel youth of color into the criminal justice system at shockingly high rates.

The passing of Proposition 19, which has also been endorsed by former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, the California NAACP, labor unions and law enforcement officials from around the state, would be a major victory for California. But it would also send a clear signal across the country that taxing and regulating marijuana is a smarter drug policy than disproportionately arresting people of color and diverting scarce law enforcement resources away from violent crimes.

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