Weed Arrests and Racial Disparities

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Racial disparities in drug enforcement are well-documented. Today, Washington City Paper‘s Rend Smith digs into how this plays out in the District, where black residents are eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites.

Smith writes about the common notion that white people tend to buy and smoke marijuana inside their homes, as opposed to African Americans who deal and smoke outside more frequently:

Court records for some of those arrested east of the river back that belief up. They describe vice officers spotting suspects engaging in open-air blazing or buying from street corner dealers. One subject “was walking down the street smoking a brown cigar” when cops spotted him. The recklessness involved would seem to disqualify disparate rates of marijuana arrests in the city as a civil rights issue: Black smokers are choosing to be flagrant about their pot use and so attracting the attention of cops who have no choice but to grab them.

But even if assumptions about smoking and dealing habits are solid, that doesn’t mean there’s no problem with the way marijuana laws are currently being enforced in black and white neighborhoods. Taking my own experience as an African American who grew up poor into account, I remember some family and friends who puffed outside—whether that involved a pack of Kools or a joint meticulously sculpted from Top rolling papers—out of respect for others in their household, particularly where there was more than one generation (and therefore more than one set of moral values) under one roof. Dealing inside the house would have been all the more inappropriate. Although that’s certainly not the situation for every black person who tokes up or does a hand-off in Ward 7 or Ward 8, the idea is that you can’t just assume they’re being belligerent, and therefore asking for repercussions.

The problem becomes even more pronounced in D.C., given the city’s high incarceration rate (fourth in the nation, when compared to states). Marijuana possession can land you six months in jail and up to $1,000 in fines.