By Jacob Sullum
This week the California NAACP endorsed a marijuana legalization initiative that will appear on the state's ballot in November, citing dramatic racial disparities in marijuana arrests. A report issued by the Drug Policy Alliance to coincide with the NAACP endorsement finds that blacks in
California's 25 largest counties are two to four times as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana possession, even though survey data indicate they are no more likely to use the drug. The findings of the DPA study (PDF), which was led by Queens University sociologist Harry Levine, are similar to those of a 2008 study that Levine did for the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Do these data show that cops are racist? That is not how Levine and his co-authors, Jon Gettman and Loren Siegel, interpret them:
Young blacks and Latinos use marijuana at lower rates than young whites. So why are police in California arresting young blacks and Latinos at higher rates than young whites, and at greater numbers than their percentages of the population? Based on our studies of policing in New York and other cities, we do not think the arrests are mostly a result of personal bias or racism on the part of individual patrol officers and their immediate supervisors. Rather, this is a system-wide phenomenon, occurring in every county and nearly every police department in California and elsewhere.
Police departments deploy most patrol and narcotics police to certain neighborhoods, usually designated "high crime." These are disproportionately low-income, and disproportionately African-American and Latino neighborhoods. It is in these neighborhoods where the police make most patrols, and where they stop and search the most vehicles and individuals, looking for "contraband" of any type in order to make an arrest. The item that young people in any neighborhood are most likely to possess, which can get them arrested, is a small amount of marijuana. In short, the arrests are racially biased mainly because the police are systematically "fishing" for arrests in only some neighborhoods, and methodically searching only some "fish." This produces what has been termed "racism without racists."
The California NAACP nevertheless is understandably concerned about the racially disproportionate impact of this policy, just as it was understandably concerned about the racially disproportionate impact of mindlessly severe federal crack sentences (which were initially championed by black politicians). The ballot measure it backs, the Control and Tax Cannabis Initiative of 2010 (a.k.a. Proposition 19), would allow adults 21 or older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and grow it for their own use. It also would authorize local governments to license and regulate the production and sale of marijuana.