Why Marijuana Bans Are Racist

November 2nd 2015

While people tend to think of marijuana legalization as a drug law issue, there's a serious racial component of the movement to consider. Black people have been disproportionately affected by the war on drugs, and because the majority of drug arrests in the U.S. are marijuana-related, pot prohibition is increasingly seen as a racial injustice.

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From the inception of the drug war, minorities have faced more frequent and serious sentencing for marijuana offenses.

dried-marijuana-bud Wollertz - bigstockphoto.com

Harry Anslinger, the face of the war on weed, regularly made racist claims in the 1930s in an effort to stoke fears about cannabis, arguing that "reefer makes darkies think they're as good as white men," for example. And though the rhetoric has changed, the effect has not: there is a racial disparity when it comes to pot.

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Here are four statistics that prove that marijuana prohibition is racist.

1. Rates of cannabis use are about equal between races, but Black people are more frequently arrested for marijuana possession.

acluACLU - aclu.org

According to the ACLU's 2013 report—"The War on Marijuana in Black and White"—a Black person is 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person. The ACLU wrote:

"Despite the fact that marijuana is used at comparable rates by whites and blacks, state and local governments have aggressively enforced marijuana laws selectively against Black people and communities. In 2010, the Black arrest rate for marijuana possession was 716 per 100,000, while the white arrest rate was 192 per 100,000. Stated another way, a Black person was 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person—a disparity that increased 32.7 percent between 2001 and 2010."

2. In states where the racial disparity is greatest, Black people are on average more than six times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.

While there is not one exclusive region in the U.S. where Black communities face increased possession arrests, there are some observable trends, with states such as Illinois and New York carrying out racially disproportionate arrests at higher levels.

"In the worst offending counties across the country, Blacks were over 10, 15, even 30 times more likely to be arrested than white residents in the same county," the ACLU reported. "These glaring racial disparities in marijuana arrests are not a northern or southern phenomenon, nor a rural or urban phenomenon, but rather a national one."

3. The increase in marijuana-related arrests seems to correlate with racially biased policing tactics.

Between 1995 and 2010, marijuana arrests went up by approximately 52 percent. Civil rights organizations argue that the shift toward "broken windows" policing has contributed to that rise—and that Black communities have been unfairly targeted as a result. Even the creator of the controversial policing tactic, George Kelling, worried that it could lead to racial problems, he said in an interview with PRI.

"Minority communities have a history of two problems with the police, and one is police brutality—that is a serious problem that has to be dealt with. But the second is under-policing. My fear is that because of the questions that are being raised now about the overuse of authority, we're going to under-police minority communities again. And that comes at a great, great cost."

4. The incarceration rate for minorities does not match with rates of drug use.

Mass Incarceration

As of 2005, Black people represented about 12 percent of the country's total drug using population—yet they represented about 34 percent of the total number of drug-related arrests and 45 percent of those in state prisons for drug offenses, according to the Sentencing Project.

Attitudes toward marijuana are changing.

In a recent call to recognized the challenges presented in criminalizing marijuana offenders, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders recently discussed the racial unfairness of pot prohibition, calling for marijuana to be federally legalized.

"Let us be clear, as is the case in many other areas, that there is a racial component to this situation," Sanders said at a campaign event held at George Mason University. "Although about the same proportion of blacks and whites use marijuana, a black person is almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person."

"Too many Americans have seen their lives destroyed because they have criminal records because of marijuana use. That is wrong. That has got to change…A criminal record could include not only time in jail, but a criminal record makes it harder for a person to get a job, harder for a person to get public benefits, harder for a person to even get housing. A criminal record stays with a person for his or her entire life."

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