If You're Black, You're Nearly 4x As Likely to Be Arrested For Marijuana Possession


DeMarcus Sanders is a 26-year-old single father living in Waterloo, Iowa with his 8-year-old son, Daivion. A few years ago, DeMarcus was managing to hold down a janitorial job while taking classes for college credit and raising his son. But then — in a story repeated thousands of times each year — DeMarcus lost his job, his driver's license, and the start of a college degree. A month in jail and thousands of dollars later, he's still paying the price for our nation's broken criminal justice system.

DeMarcus's troubles began when he was pulled over by Waterloo Police for, in their words, playing his music too loudly. The police officer ran DeMarcus's driver's license and then searched his car after smelling marijuana. They found a single seed on the floor and arrested DeMarcus for possession. He pled guilty and was sentenced to 30 days in jail, where he lost his janitorial job and credits for college.

Under Iowa criminal law, DeMarcus's driver's license was suspended for six months. Years later, he still owes the state $2,346 for room and board at the jail, and for fines, courts courts, and other related fees. Until he pays in full, DeMarcus can't drive — making it difficult to hold down a job and care for his son. To save money, he works small jobs and lives with his mother and brother.

Sadly, DeMarcus Sanders is not alone. In fact, he's one of several people profiled in the American Civil Liberties Union's (ACLU's) new reportThe War on Marijuana in Black and White, which documents blatant racial disparities in enforcement of our nation's drug laws. The simple fact that DeMarcus is black made him 3.73 times more likely than a white person to be arrested for marijuana possession, even though blacks and whites use the drug at nearly identical rates. In Iowa, DeMarcus' skin color made him 8.34 times more likely to be arrested for possession, a crime that constitutes 88% of all marijuana arrests in the U.S. between 2001 and 2010.

The ACLU report catalogues the devastating effects, both fiscally and morally, of our country's so-called War on Drugs. Although marijuana use remained relatively stable between 1990 and 2010, prison sentences for marijuana possession have lengthened dramatically and the number of people arrested for the crime has increased by 188%. There were 140,000 more marijuana arrests in 2010 than in 2001, and the racial disparity in arrests between blacks and whites increased by nearly 33%. In 2010, states collectively spent over $3.6 billion enforcing marijuana possession laws, more than $1 billion of which was spent in New York and California.

Only two states, Colorado and Washington, have since legalized marijuana; 18 states and the District of Columbia allow medical marijuana use. Although President Obama has stated that he has "bigger fish to fry" than recreational marijuana users, the drug is still illegal at the federal level, and the Justice Department continues to target marijuana dispensaries in California and elsewhere.

But the racial disparities in enforcement remain, for marijuana possession and other crimes. In her recent book, civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander tackled the subject, arguing that the War on Drugs and racially-biased arrests have relegated people of color to second-class citizenship. In a nation with only 5% of the world's population and 25% of the world's prison population, blacks are nearly seven times more likely than whites to be incarcerated and Latinos are almost three times more likely, costing taxpayers $63.4 billion per year.

Most of the prison population continues to be young black men with limited schooling, although this is beginning to change. Both black men and women, and in particular women, are today less likely to be in prison than they were a decade ago, while rates for whites and Hispanic women are rising. Changes in drug laws and sentencing, such as the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 which reduced mandatory sentences for cocaine use and possession, are at least in part responsible for this trend.

But the unsettling reality is that we can expect many more DeMarcus Sanderses until we finally legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana. Better policing and smarter enforcement would go part of the way toward a more equitable criminal justice system, but ultimately we'll need new laws to change things. After all, in an era of strained budgets and dwindling resources, it's time for common sense sobriety to finally infiltrate national drug policies that for decades have lingered behind the bars of our collective political timidity.