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Newfound Infatuation with Marijuana Enforcement Clouds Police Priorities, Racial Disparity as Pronounced as Ever

Dan Berger,
Drug Law Reform Project
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May 2, 2008

According to a groundbreaking report released Tuesday at the New York Civil Liberties Union, the New York Police Department arrested and jailed nearly 400,000 people for possessing small amounts of marijuana between 1997 and 2007 - a tenfold increase in marijuana arrests over the previous decade and a figure marked by staggering, if not surprising, racial disparity. The report offers a microcosm of the illogic and inequality that have come to define drug law enforcement nationwide.

The report, The Marijuana Arrest Crusade in New York City: Racial Bias in Police Policy 1997-2007 (PDF), is the first ever in-depth study of misdemeanor marijuana arrests in New York City during the administrations of mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg.

Unfortunately, the report's findings are far from an aberration. Over the past decade, law enforcement nationwide has diverted evermore resources toward arresting low-level marijuana users. Of the now more than 1.9 million drug arrests every year, close to half are for marijuana offenses and nearly 90 percent of those are for mere possession.

As the number of arrests for marijuana use has skyrocketed in recent years, the percentage of violent crimes that go unsolved has followed suit. The NYPD's time and resources spent busting pot smokers should be focused on preventing and punishing violent crimes, like rape and murder, not marijuana use - especially given the fact that roughly 100 million Americans admit to having used marijuana, including mayor Bloomberg and our past two presidents.

Law enforcement's infatuation with marijuana enforcement is all the more damaging given the systemic racial disparity it frequently entails. According to Tuesday's report, between 1997 and 2007, New York City police arrested and jailed about 205,000 blacks, 122,000 Latinos and 59,000 whites for possessing small amounts of marijuana. Blacks accounted for about 52 percent of the arrests, though they represented only 26 percent of the city's population over that time span. Whites represented only 15 percent of those arrested, despite comprising 35 percent of the population.

Such racial inequality has long been a hallmark of drug enforcement efforts nationwide. While African-Americans make up only 14 percent of the nation's drug users (whites comprise 72 percent), African-Americans comprise 38 percent of those arrested for drug violations, and a staggering 45 percent of those in state prison for a drug offense.

The report identifies the perverse incentives that cause the NYPD, as well as police nationwide, to focus on marijuana arrests: Marijuana arrests provide police officers a relatively safe and easy way to demonstrate productivity and generate additional funding, especially since police departments rely predominantly on arrest statistics to measure effectiveness.

It is clearly time for some new metrics of success. Public opinion polls have long shown that Americans do not think people should be arrested and imprisoned for marijuana use, recognizing that doing so only undermines public safety. Let's hope that police and politicians soon accept this undeniable reality.

In a promising move, for the first time in a quarter of a century, legislation has been introduced in Congress that would eliminate federal criminal sanctions for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Please take a moment to tell your Congressional Representative to support this historic legislation and to stop wasting limited law enforcement resources on marijuana enforcement.

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