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November 5, 2009

Noting significant biases in pot policies and practices

CNN has this notable new commentary headlined "Pot acceptable?  Not for young and nonwhite," which is authored by Stephen Gutwillig of the Drug Policy Alliance. Here are extended excerpts from an important piece:

This year is a watershed year in pot politics.  The Obama administration recently announced it would defer to state medical marijuana laws and stop federal prosecutions of patients and providers who comply with them.  In California, the tanking economy inspired Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to call for debating marijuana taxation and regulation, a bill was introduced in Sacramento to do just that, and four separate ballot initiatives are circulating to allow voters the chance to decide the issue for themselves.

Schwarzenegger's position was echoed by New York Gov. David Paterson and by Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, who suggested legalizing pot could cripple Mexican and U.S. gangs.  The unprecedented momentum to question marijuana prohibition is being fueled by a widely remarked-upon phenomenon — the cultural mainstreaming of marijuana.

From Showtime's established hit "Weeds" to the "Is Pot Already Legal?" cover of Fortune magazine in September, marijuana is commanding attention and an odd kind of respect for its sheer popularity and massive revenues.  Marie Claire magazine and the "Today Show" profiled "stiletto stoners," stressed-out women professionals who unwind with a doobie instead of a cosmo.  And in a recent style feature, the Los Angeles Times gushed that "cannabis culture is coming out of the closet," citing its ubiquity across the spectrum of pop culture and high-end design....

Pot is indeed flourishing in the mainstream as never before, but the sometimes giddy discussion overlooks a sinister parallel phenomenon: More people are being arrested for pot crimes than ever; they are increasingly young and disproportionately nonwhite.

In 2008, the police arrested 847,864 people nationwide for marijuana violations, according to the 2008 FBI Uniform Crime Report.  Pot arrests represent fully half of all drug arrests reported in the United States.  The overwhelming majority — a whopping 89 percent — were charged with possession only.  Most striking, the marijuana arrest rate in the United States has nearly tripled since 1991.

More people are being arrested for pot crimes than ever; they are ... young and disproportionately nonwhite. Examples from both coasts illustrate this.  In California, according to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, crime arrest rates have generally plummeted statewide from 1990 to 2008 by an average of 40 percent.  Drug possession arrests for everything but marijuana collectively fell by nearly 30 percent.  But during that same 18-year period, arrests for marijuana possession in California skyrocketed 127 percent.  In 2008, more Californians were arrested for pot offenses than any year since decriminalization took effect 34 years ago.

Similarly, New York state decriminalized simple marijuana possession in the 1970s.  But under Mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, New York City has become one of the marijuana arrest capitals of the world — 40,300 arrests last year. In the years between 1997 and 2008, the NYPD made 12 times as many pot possession arrests as in the previous 12 years, according to a study by the New York Civil Liberties Union.

How can the notion that marijuana is "here to stay" coexist with these rates of marijuana arrests?  Apparently because the people caught in the crossfire aren't considered part of the mainstream.  In California, African-Americans are three times as likely as whites to be arrested for a pot crime...  In New York City, blacks and Latinos — who represent about half the city's population — accounted for 86 percent of everyone charged with pot possession in 2008....

Widespread discussion of everyday marijuana consumption is helping turn the tide against decades of failed marijuana prohibition.  However, too much of that conversation is ignoring the people most impacted by our punitive policies.  We must end pot prohibition and stop the massive number of arrests and biased enforcement that are at its core.

Some recent related posts:

November 5, 2009 at 10:40 AM | Permalink


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Its only a matter of time before The Onion headline "Drug Use Now Legal if Employed" becomes reality.

Posted by: virginia | Nov 5, 2009 11:31:32 AM

Although the numbers look bad, I believe many of these pot arrests are actually disorderly persons who confront/challenge cops and are then charged with possession of a joint because that is the easiest charge to prove.

Posted by: mjs | Nov 5, 2009 11:59:54 AM

Yes, a lot of these situations are provoked from what I've seen on the news.

Posted by: Attorney Disability Insurance | Nov 5, 2009 12:13:58 PM

Pot smokers are not confrontational unless they've had a few drinks.

Posted by: beth | Nov 5, 2009 12:29:55 PM

mjs, are you suggesting our Founders were high when they wrote the Declaration of Independence?

Posted by: George | Nov 5, 2009 12:42:11 PM

We call it breathing on a police officer. They smell the pot and they start looking around and asking questions.

Posted by: John Neff | Nov 5, 2009 3:27:48 PM

A New York Magazine article reported on how many of these New York marijuana arrests go down. They are part of a general culture of over-policing that goes on in some minority neighborhoods:

"The scenario of what happens on the street, as told to me by several arrestees, is remarkably similar. It goes like this: You’re black, or Spanish, or some white-boy fellow traveler with a cockeyed Bulls cap and falling-down pants. The cops come up to you, usually while you’re in a car, and ask you if you’re doing anything you shouldn’t. You say, 'No, officer,' and they say, 'You don’t have anything in your pocket you’re not supposed to have, do you, because if you do and I find it, it’ll be a lot worse for you.' It is at that point, because you are young, nervous, possibly simple, and ignorant of the law, you might comply and take the joint you’d been saving out of your pocket. Then,zam: Suddenly, your protection under the Marijuana Reform Act vanishes because the weed is now in 'public view.' The handcuffs, the paddy wagon, and the aforementioned court date soon follow."


Posted by: dm | Nov 5, 2009 4:26:24 PM

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