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

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.”

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 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.

“Police departments deploy most patrol and narcotics police to certain neighborhoods, usually designated ‘high crime,’” they wrote. “These are disproportionately low-income, and disproportionately African-American and Latino neighborhoods. It is in these neighborhoods where the police make most patrols, and where they stop and search the most vehicles and individuals.”

Neill Franklin agrees. “If you watch police, they’re not rolling up on people because they’re openly smoking a blunt,” he says; they are more likely to stop groups of three or four youths or men hanging out.

Another factor, he adds, is a police culture in which everyone of a certain ethnic group, subculture, age, or in a certain neighborhood is considered a suspect. In Baltimore, he says, “we don’t police Roland Park the same way we police West Baltimore,” referring to an affluent, mostly white neighborhood and a poor, mostly black one. A 35-year-old black man will get stopped well before a 35-year-old white man, he says, unless the white one looks like a junkie.

That, he says, is both unconstitutional and bad policing. Police who are “serious about their craft,” he explains, know how to profile criminals, to watch for the body language, the behavioral signs, that indicate when someone’s carrying a gun or looking to break into cars. “I can tell within 30 to 45 seconds if someone’s armed,” he adds. Searching large numbers of people instead of patiently observing to see who the real bad guys are, he says, is lazy.

Are massive pot arrests the result of a numbers game, in which police commanders can use statistics to prove that their officers are being productive, or of the “broken-window theory”? Franklin says it's “a bit of both."

Two Cities

New York’s pot-bust policy illustrates that point. Born out of Rudolph Giuliani’s application of the broken-window theory, it has continued under Bloomberg’s mania for metrics. Now, it goes along with two other police efforts: a phenomenal increase in the number of people stopped and frisked, and “Operation Clean Halls,” in which cops arrest people for trespassing if they don’t provide a satisfactory explanation of why they’re in an apartment building. The two police precincts where cops stop the most people—the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Brownsville and East New York, low-income, overwhelmingly black and Latino areas with a high crime rate—also produce the most pot arrests.

Many, if not most, of the city’s pot busts come from those stops, say lawyers who represent marijuana defendants, and those busts are often based on bogus charges. In New York State, possession of less than 25 grams gets a $100 fine—but smoking or possession “in public view” is a misdemeanor. In many arrests, the only time the marijuana was “in public view” was after the cop found it or the defendant agreed to empty his pockets.

“They’re not saying they’re recovering it from the pocket, they’re saying it’s from the hand,” says Scott Levy, a public defender in the Bronx. Those arrests are not counted in the stop-and-frisk numbers, he explains, because police don’t consider them stops on suspicion. They claim the defendant was “observed committing a crime.”

St. Louis shows an opposite pattern. In the city, the number of pot busts has fallen below 100 in the last two years. In the predominantly white St. Louis County suburbs, they zoomed to more than 5,000 last year.

“I could count on two hands the number [of possession cases] I’ve had from the city,” says Joseph Welch, the lawyer who heads Greater St. Louis NORML— and most of them came when police found weed on someone arrested on another charge. He believes this is because police in the city, which is about half black, have more serious crimes to deal with than pot possession, while in the suburbs, they are more likely to go after petty offenses. Smaller cities and towns can also keep the fines they collect if they prosecute cases in municipal courts instead of turning them over to the states.

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.


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.


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