Throughout the criminal justice system, people of color have traditionally been arrested more often, charged more harshly, given less access to bail, convicted at greater rates and sentenced to longer than their white peers. This has certainly carried through to drug enforcement.
Now, many states and local jurisdictions have legalized or decriminalized the possession of marijuana by adults. More, still, have authorized marijuana for medical reasons, making it legal for qualified people to have and consume. Indeed, according to the ACLU, two out of every three Americans supports marijuana legalization.
With this sea change occurring, you might expect that the number of arrests for marijuana possession would be noticeably down, at least nationwide. You would certainly hope that marijuana enforcement would be roughly equal between ethnicities, as people of color use the drug at roughly the same rate as whites.
Unfortunately, the nationwide war on marijuana continues to rage on — and extreme racial disparities persist.
Marijuana accounts for 43% of all drug arrests in the US
Reform has had some effect on the rate of marijuana arrests in states that have legalized or decriminalized the drug, according to the ACLU. However, in recent years marijuana arrests nationally have actually grown in number. People are arrested for marijuana far more often than for any other drug. And, nine out of 10 marijuana arrests are for possession.
Nationwide, Black people are 3.6 times as likely to be arrested for weed, and it’s worse in Wisconsin
The War on Drugs has disproportionately targeted people of color, especially African-Americans, even though people of color do not use drugs at a higher rate than whites. Nationwide, African-Americans are 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana. Unfortunately, in Wisconsin, Blacks are even more disproportionately targeted.
Statewide, African-Americans are 4.2 times as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana. In certain counties — Eau Claire, La Crosse, Waukesha, Ozaukee and about 10 others — African-Americans are between 11.4 and 34.9 times as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana.
The ACLU’s numbers are strong evidence of racial profiling. In fact, in some cases minor offenses like marijuana possession have been enforced particularly aggressively in communities of color as a matter of policy. The result is disproportionate rates of arrest and incarceration of African-Americans and other people of color. That can mean lifelong consequences for an offense that is increasingly considered by Americans as not worthy of criminal justice involvement.
We need to see law enforcement take action to reduce the racial disparities in marijuana arrests and to reduce the overall number of arrests. Legalization may not be enough to bring about equity in this area. In addition, past criminal convictions for possession of marijuana should be routinely wiped from offenders’ records.