Legalizing marijuana will be no “silver bullet” for systemic racism, activists are saying today, after a landmark new study confirmed California’s blacks get pot tickets at about four times the rate of whites, despite similar usage levels.
California decriminalized personal possession of cannabis in 2010, and arrests have fallen 86 percent, from historic highs of around 100,000 per year, to about 20,000 in 2014.
But making pot a ticket instead of a misdemeanor also downgraded the government’s level of enforcement oversight. No one knows how many pot tickets California police are writing each year, or to whom. It took a team of four Stanford law students over one year of groundbreaking, original research, to compile the data, which is damning.
In Los Angeles, blacks were cited for pot at a rate four times as high as whites, despite similar usage rates. In Fresno, blacks were cited at a rate 3.6 times as high as whites. Latinos got pot tickets 1.7 times as often as whites in Fresno, and 1.4 times as often as whites in Los Angeles.
“It is likely that these disparities are actually greater,” ACLU researchers concluded. “California has a long history of data collection challenges regarding Latinos, who are often classified … as white and thus under counted.”
The DPA-ACLU study “Marijuana Enforcement Disparities In California: A Racial Injustice” builds on similar reports that found Colorado court filings for pot have dropped 81 percent, but, black teens saw their relative burden of pot arrests rise after legalization.
“White juvenile marijuana arrests decreased by 8 percent between 2012 and 2014, while black juvenile arrests increased by 58 percent and Latino juvenile arrests increased 29 percent,” Buzzfeed reported May 10.
California helped lead the nation into marijuana decriminalization. Possession of under an ounce of pot became an infraction on Jan. 1, 2011, punishable by up to a $100 fine “plus fees”. That $100 ticket plus fines fall hardest on society’s least stable.
When they miss their payment, a bench warrant for their arrest can be issued. That can lead to a police stop, arrest, vehicle impoundment, and a vicious circle of fines and punishment. The Department of Justice has called for reforms for such predatory policing in communities like Ferguson, Missouri.
“This can be a substantial burden for young and low-income people … enforcement of marijuana possession — and the economic burden it entails — falls disproportionately on black and Latino people. This disparity is particularly acute for black people and young men and boys,” ACLU California researchers found.
Funded by the Drug Policy Alliance and the ACLU of California, the study breaks original ground in bureaucratic swampland. The state’s tens or hundreds of thousands of annual pot tickets are treated like traffic tickets — mostly handwritten and not available online.
The ACLU had to threaten to sue certain cities to get them to disclose the data, said Drug Policy Alliance Marijuana Law and Policy manager Amanda Reiman.
Reiman called the California justice system “a black hole of information.”
There’s simply no data to support police assertions that pot has been de-prioritized, or that racial bias allegations are unfounded.
On the contrary, this first sample of infraction data shows decriminalization has been no silver bullet to much broader, systemic racism, Reiman said.
“We saw 13,000 felony arrests for 2014 and we know that those arrests are happening more to black and brown people. We know that these arrests should not be occurring,” she said.
She said the California legalization measure Adult Use of Marijuana Act would allow people with pot convictions to wipe their record clean, or apply for a reduced sentence based on modernized cannabis laws.
But legalization alone is no “silver bullet” to what critics say is the modern day Jim Crow.
“It means that we’re not done,” Reiman said. “Legalization is going to reduce the harms associated with disparate policing, but in the end it’s not going to change disparate practices. Only a full overhaul of training and practices is going to change racially disparate policing.”
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