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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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Why is this?

There is little or no evidence that blacks and Latinos use marijuana at a higher rate than whites. The most recent surveys by the U.S. government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the most consistent studies of drug use, have showed that a slightly higher percentage of whites under 25 get high at least once a month or once a year, a slightly higher percentage of blacks over 25 do, and a significantly lower share of Latinos and Asians do.

Marijuana arrests began to rise dramatically in the early 1990s, after a slight decrease during the crack epidemic of the late 1980s. They hit record highs in almost every year between 1994 and 2007, and have surpassed 800,000 every year since 2006.

The “broken-window theory” of crime was a major impetus for this increase. This idea posits that small signs of urban disorder, such as buildings with broken windows, create an atmosphere that encourages crime. Put into practice by New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in the mid-1990s, it meant “zero tolerance” for minor offenses like pot-smoking, drinking beer in the street and washing car windows for spare change. The main targets were young black and Latino men.

Crime dropped sharply during Giuliani’s term, and the nation hailed him as New York’s savior. In reality, the zero-tolerance policy probably had less effect than the ebbing of the crack-trade wars, a 15 percent increase in the number of city cops, and the use of computers to pinpoint high-crime blocks. Criminologist Franklin Zimring told Salon.com in 2011 that police concentrating their efforts on high-crime areas was the main reason for the decrease, and the idea that Giuliani’s zero-tolerance policies had cleaned the city up was a myth.

Still, the broken-window theory became very popular nationwide. Police forces in most major cities had expanded significantly during and after the crack epidemic, with the federal government funding much of the increase. As serious crime fell nationwide in the ’90s, the theory provided a rationale for using these added cops to go after petty offenses. It also provided both a professional ideology and a technically non-racial justification for heavy-handed policing in black and Latino neighborhoods (and of blacks and Latinos in white neighborhoods).

In May, after the New York Civil Liberties Union issued a report stating that more than 85 percent of the people city police stopped were black or Latino, Mayor Michael Bloomberg dismissed his critics as “nostalgic for the days when the ACLU set crime policy in this city, but most New Yorkers don't want rampant crime to return.”

Critics of pot arrests generally offer three explanations for the racial disparity: That pot-smoking is more public in low-income neighborhoods, that these neighborhoods are much more heavily policed, and that the arrests are colored by racism.

People between the ages of 15 and 25 are the ones “most targeted” by police, says Allen St. Pierre of NORML. In the suburbs, he says, they’re more likely to smoke in someone’s home, on private property, where it’s much harder for police to see what’s going on, and where they need much more specific grounds to enter. In contrast, the urban poor live in more crowded situations, so youths who want to light up are more likely to do it outside, where there are “almost no constitutional protections.”

“If you do not want to get arrested, do not use marijuana in a car,” he warns.

In “Targeting Blacks for Marijuana,” a 2010 report done for the Drug Policy Alliance, Levine, Gettman and Loren Siegel argued for the second theory: The racial disparities come from intensive policing of minorities.