How Police and Politicians Profit by Destroying the Lives of Young Black People for Tiny Amounts of Pot
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Police departments concentrate their patrols only in certain neighborhoods, usually ones designated as “high crime.” These are mainly places where low-income whites and people of color live. In these neighborhoods, police stop and search the most vehicles and individuals while looking for “contraband” of any type to make an arrest. The most common item that people in any neighborhood possess that will get them arrested—and the most common item that police find—is a small amount of marijuana.
Police officers patrolling in middle- and upper-middle-class neighborhoods typically do not search the vehicles and pockets of white people, so most well-off whites enjoy a de facto legalization of marijuana possession. Free from the intense surveillance and frequent searches that occur in other neighborhoods, they have little reason to fear a humiliating arrest and incarceration. This produces patterns, as in Chicago, where whites constitute 45 percent of the population but only 5 percent of those arrested for possession.
The result has been called “racism without racists.” No individual officers need harbor racial animosity for the criminal justice system to produce jails and courts filled with black and brown faces. But the absence of hostile intent does not absolve policy-makers and law enforcement officials from responsibility or blame. As federal judge Shira Scheindlin recently determined in two prominent stop-and-frisk cases, New York City’s top officials “adopted an attitude of willful blindness toward statistical evidence of racial disparities in stops and stop outcomes.” She cited the legal doctrine of “deliberate indifference” to describe police and city officials who “willfully ignored overwhelming proof that the policy…is racially discriminatory and therefore violates the United States Constitution.”
Racially biased marijuana enforcement stretches far beyond New York City—and its pernicious effects extend far beyond the degrading experience of being arrested and jailed. Most serious are the lifelong criminal records produced by a single arrest. Twenty years ago, misdemeanor arrest records were papers stored in dusty file cabinets. Now they are computerized and instantly available for $20 or less from commercial database firms—and easily found by a Google search for the phrase “criminal records.” (Try it yourself.) Employers, landlords, schools, banks and credit card companies rule out applicants on the basis of these now universally available records, which have been aptly described as a “scarlet letter” and a “new Jim Crow.” The substantial damage caused by criminal records from the millions of marijuana arrests has also been willfully disregarded by top officials almost everywhere, including in Congress and the White House.
Perhaps surprisingly, police departments, prosecutors and elected officials rarely discuss their marijuana arrests. They don’t take credit for—or try to justify—arresting and jailing people in record-breaking numbers for possession. In fact, they usually seek to keep marijuana arrests out of the public eye.
This makes it difficult for many white Americans to believe that so many people are being arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana. The news media don’t report on these cases; nor are white Americans likely to personally know anyone who has been arrested (or whose children have been arrested) for marijuana possession. To an extraordinary extent, middle-class and especially upper-middle-class and wealthy white Americans have been shielded from information about—and remain unaffected by—the policing of marijuana possession. The near-invisibility of these arrests has also hidden the strong support for them by police departments and prosecutors.
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The national crusade against marijuana can be traced to the early 1990s, as the “war on drugs” shifted its focus from crack cocaine to marijuana under Bill Clinton. Since then, Congress has regularly allocated billions in federal funding to local police and prosecutors under the Justice Department’s anti-drug and police programs. Grantees often report their drug possession arrests as evidence of their accomplishments using these funds—and as proof that they should receive more. Federal money has thus subsidized the arrests of millions of young people for possessing marijuana, disproportionately young people of color. Prominent blue-state Democrats like Joe Biden, Dianne Feinstein, Charles Schumer, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have strongly supported these grants over the years; in 2009, the fiscal stimulus actually doubled the anti-drug funding for local law enforcement agencies.