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How Police and Politicians Profit by Destroying the Lives of Young Black People for Tiny Amounts of Pot

The federal government has subsidized the criminalization of millions of young people simply for having a small amount of pot.

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More than many people realize, prominent liberals have long been among law enforcement’s most important political allies. A substantial power bloc of “drug war liberals”—or what might more broadly be termed “law-and-order liberals”—has played a major role in sustaining this drug war policing. Police departments depend on liberal Democrats to defend their funding and policy needs. Liberals in Congress and the White House, in turn, depend on police lobbying groups to support important legislation, such as their endorsement of immigration and gun reforms. And politicians at all levels of government gain credibility with many voters by having top police officials vouch for their steadfastness in “fighting crime.”

With this federal support and encouragement, arrests for marijuana possession climbed from a crack-era low of 260,000 in 1990, to 500,000 in 1995, to 640,000 in 2000, to 690,000 in 2005, to 750,000 in 2010. The ACLU calculates that these arrests have cost taxpayers at least $3.6 billion a year. And there is absolutely no evidence that they reduce serious or violent crime—or even drug use.

So the question again becomes: Why? Why have these millions of arrests happened? Why is it so hard to stop them? While federal funding and drug war propaganda have helped drive marijuana arrests, police and sheriffs’ departments have had their own reasons to embrace and fiercely defend the practice. Central to understanding the national marijuana arrest crusade is the fact that significant constituencies within police departments benefit from marijuana arrests, find them useful for internal departmental purposes, and want them to continue. 

For ordinary patrol officers, marijuana arrests are relatively safe and easy work. Policing can be dangerous, but officers are unlikely to get shot or stabbed while searching and arresting teenagers for marijuana possession. All police departments have formal and informal activity quotas; in many departments, officers can show productivity and earn overtime pay by stopping and searching ten or so young people near the end of a shift and making a marijuana arrest. Police officers in New York have long used the term “collars for dollars” to refer to the practice of making misdemeanor arrests to earn overtime pay. Also, from the officers’ point of view, people possessing marijuana are highly desirable arrestees. As one veteran lieutenant put it, they are “clean”; unlike drunks and heroin addicts, young marijuana users rarely have HIV, hepatitis, tuberculosis or even body lice. They are unlikely to throw up on the officer, in the patrol car or at the station. Marijuana arrests are indeed a quality-of-life issue—for the police.

Most important, police department supervisors at all levels find that marijuana possession arrests are very useful. They are proof of productivity to their superiors; some supervisors also receive overtime pay for the extra work by officers under their command. Making many searches and arrests for minor offenses is also excellent training for rookie police. If a new officer screws up the paperwork, it doesn’t matter because, as one sergeant explained, “it’s just a pot arrest.” And if a crisis or emergency comes up, police commanders can temporarily reassign officers making arrests for marijuana without hindering an ongoing investigation. This “reserve army” of police focusing on petty offenses keeps officers busy, provides records of their whereabouts and productivity, and gives commanders staffing flexibility. 

 

Marijuana arrests also enable police department managers to obtain fingerprints, photographs and other data on young people who would not otherwise end up in their databases. There is nothing else the police can do that gets so many new people into their system as the broad net of marijuana possession arrests.

 
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