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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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Still, the racial disparities hold. In the city of St. Louis, more than 90 percent of the people busted for pot were black. In its suburbs, more than half were.

Race

A third theory for the disparities is racism. This is next to impossible to quantify without knowing the private conversations and thoughts of police and prosecutors.

Still, with the exception of hippies in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the prime villains of antidrug crusades have almost always been nonwhite, from Chinese opium smokers in the 1870s to Mexican and black potheads in the 1930s to black and Colombian crack dealers in the 1980s. “Everyone knows—but does not say—that the enemy in the War on Drugs can be identified by race,” Michelle Alexander wrote in her 2010 book The New Jim Crow.

In the book, Alexander argued that although drug-prohibition laws are not explicitly racist, the way they are enforced compounds whatever racism exists at each step in the process. “How exactly does a formally colorblind criminal justice system achieve such racially discriminatory results?” she asked. “The first step is to grant law enforcement officials extraordinary discretion regarding who to stop, search, arrest, and charge for drug offenses, thus ensuring that conscious and unconscious racial beliefs and stereotypes will be given free reign. Unbridled discretion inevitably creates huge racial disparities.”

A common tactic that leads to marijuana arrests, says Harry Levine, is “trolling for young black and Latino men”—staking out dealers in certain neighborhoods, and then stopping and searching their customers. But as black and Latino officers are doing this too, he contends, the cause is “not so much racism” as “who the prey is. They’re fishing in certain waters and hunting certain kinds of fish.”

The main racial effect, he says, comes from the consequences of a marijuana arrest. Arrest records are now easily available from online databases, and those are used by “every major big-box employer.” Even in areas where marijuana possession is decriminalized, summonses “are not minor. They are not like traffic tickets. They are handled by the criminal courts.” If someone is convicted of possession, they now have a record as a drug criminal, and that might prevent them from getting a student loan, living in public housing, or working in certain jobs. The result, he says, is a “de facto Jim Crow system.”

A longer version of this article will appear in the August issue of Skunk magazine, Volume 7, number 10.

Steven Wishnia is a New York-based journalist and musician. He is the author of "Exit 25 Utopia" and "The Cannabis Companion."