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It's Not Just NYC: Across America, Only Black and Brown People Get Arrested for Pot

The racial ratios of reefer roundups are as bad as New York's—if not worse—in scores of other U.S. cities.
 
 
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New York City, the pot-bust capital of the Western world, is notorious for the racial skewing of its marijuana arrests. Over the last 15 years, more than 85 percent of the half-million-plus people charged with misdemeanor possession there have been black or Latino.

But the racial ratios of reefer roundups are equally extreme—if not worse—in scores of other U.S. cities. In Atlanta, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Washington, more than 80 percent of the people popped for pot possession are black. In Minneapolis and its Hennepin County suburbs, black people are 11 percent of the population and more than half of those busted for buds.

“Just about every major metropolitan area in the country has similar disparity issues,” says Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and former commander of the Maryland State Police’s drug bureau.

“With minor variations, it’s the same everywhere,” says Jon Gettman, a visiting professor of criminal justice at Shenandoah University in Virginia. Gettman, says Allen St. Pierre of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, has been researching marijuana-arrest numbers more obsessively than anyone for the last 20 years, extracting them from data in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report.

Nationally, Gettman says, in 2008 black people were 12 percent of the U.S. population, but 31.6 percent of those arrested for pot possession in cases where race was reported to the FBI. (2008 is the most recent year for which detailed figures are available.)

In the six urban areas where Gettman found the highest rates of marijuana arrests, the handcuffs most often clamped black wrists. In Baltimore, Louisville, Omaha, Atlanta, and Syracuse and Buffalo in upstate New York, the arrest rate for black people exceeded 1 out of 65.

In Atlanta, African Americans were 93 percent of those busted for pot in the last two years, according to figures obtained by TV station WSB. The city’s people are slightly more than half black.

“Atlanta is really extreme,” says Harry Levine, a sociology professor at Queens College who has studied pot arrests extensively.

Black people are 88 percent of those busted in Baltimore, which is 64 percent black. In Omaha, Syracuse, and Buffalo, African Americans are slightly more than 10 percent of the population, and about half the people arrested.

In Washington, more than 90 percent of the people charged for cannabis last year were black, according to the Washington City Paper. The city is slightly more than half African American. In Philadelphia, about 43 percent black, the percentage has exceeded 80 percent over the last few years, according to the Philadelphia Weekly and Gettman’s figures. In Chicago, 78 percent of the people handcuffed for hay in 2009 and 2010 were black, the Chicago Reader reported last year. The city is about one-third black. Whites, also about one-third of Chicago’s population, were 5 percent of those arrested.

Boston, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and Charlotte, North Carolina, are all about a quarter black—but more than 60 percent of the people they arrest for herb are. In California’s 25 largest counties, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, black people are 7 percent of the population and 20 percent of those busted.

The one exception appears to be the Kansas City area. Jackson County, Missouri, which includes most of the city and some of its suburbs, is about a quarter African American—but in 2009 and 2010, less than a quarter of the people busted for pot were black.

F. Louis Caskey, a Kansas City lawyer affiliated with NORML, credits the county’s drug-court system, in which people arrested for drug possession can get the charges dismissed if they complete 12 to 18 months of rehab. “The attitude towards recreational amounts of drugs is different here now,” he says. “Our police officers have better things to do.”