By Jacob Sullum
Last week the Drug Policy Alliance released a report that showed blacks in California are much more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, even though they are less likely to smoke pot. Today another DPA report highlights similar, though less dramatic, disparities between Latinos and non-Hispanic whites. In a coordinated move, the National Latino Officers Association, citing marijuana prohibition's disproportionate impact on Latinos, today endorsed Proposition 19, California's pot legalization initiative. The National Black Police Association and the California NAACP are supporting Prop. 19 for similar reasons.
The authors of the DPA report, led by Queens College sociologist Harry Levine, found that from 2006 to 2008 "major cities in California arrested and prosecuted Latinos for marijuana possession at double to nearly triple the rate of whites," despite the fact that "U.S. government surveys consistently find that young Latinos use marijuana at lower rates than young whites." Out of 33 cities examined in the report, Pasadena, Santa Monica, and Alhambra—where Latinos were almost three times as likely to be busted for marijuana offenses— had the biggest disparties. In Los Angeles, which accounts for one-tenth of the state's population, the ratio was 2 to 1.
Commenters here sometimes argue that the racial angle is a distraction from the fundamental injustice of punishing people for consuming politically incorrect intoxicants (or for helping others do so). Even if drug arrestees perfectly mirrored the demographic makeup of the general population (or the drug-offender population), they say, prohibition would still be wrong. Of course that's true, but the drug war's de facto discrimination against blacks and Latinos adds insult to injury. Leaving aside the explicitly racist roots of drug prohibition, when you have a law that 1) criminalizes widespread consensual activity and 2) is enforced against only a small subset of violators, there's a good chance it will impose an extra burden on vulnerable minorities. The fact that affluent, politically influential white people get away with the same drug offenses that land poor blacks and Latinos in jail makes this legal regime even more arbitrary and unfair. Furthermore, as the Prop. 19 debate shows, this aspect of the drug war's injustice can attract allies in the fight to overturn prohibition who otherwise might not focus on the issue.
This morning Matt Welch mocked his former colleagues at the Los Angeles Times for taking a position that suggests police should continue to bust people for marijuana possession while making sure that more of them are white—which also happens to be Rush Limbaugh's answer to the racially disproportionate impact of the war on drugs.