Among the reasons I voted for Amendment 64 was that I was tired of people being arrested and sent to prison for simple possession of marijuana.
I had read stories and anecdotal reports over the years about disproportionate arrest numbers for blacks and whites, and that law enforcement was using pot possession busts to boost arrest numbers. But I still wasn’t ready for “The War On Marijuana — In Black and White,” released by the American Civil Liberties Union last week. Using data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program and the U.S. Census’ annual county population estimates by age, sex, race and ethnicity, the report is the first to document arrest rates per 100,000 for marijuana possession for all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
The report found that, between 2001 and 2010, though blacks and whites smoked marijuana at about the same rate, blacks are almost four times more likely to be arrested as whites for pot offenses. In 2010, there were almost 900,000 marijuana arrests nationwide — that’s 300,000 more than for all violent crimes combined.
Beyond the black/white divide, the numbers are staggering and infinitely sad. Between 2001 and 2010, 52 percent of all drug arrests were for marijuana and more than 7 million Americans (nearly the population of New York City) were arrested for marijuana offenses, 88 percent of those for simple possession. In 2010, a pot arrest was made every 37 seconds.
Although racial disparities exist across the country, in Iowa, the District of Columbia and Illinois, blacks were 7.5 to 8.5 more likely than whites to be busted. In more than 96 percent of counties with more than 30,000 people in which at least 2 percent of the residents are black, blacks are arrested at higher rates than whites for marijuana possession. Many wind up ensnared in the justice system, which affects their ability to get jobs and education and complicates their lives and that of their families, for doing, let’s not forget, something that, though it’s illegal under federal law, 20 million Americans admit to doing.
The Colorado figures show less racial disparity. Blacks were three times more likely to be arrested than whites in 2001 and 1.9 percent more likely in 2010. But arrest numbers were disturbing. In 2010 there were 11,009 arrests in Colorado for marijuana offenses. That’s like busting everyone in a town the size of Steamboat Springs — every year. Of those, 94 percent (10,343) were for possession. Though arrest rates in general decreased during the period, dropping 14 percent from 2001 to 2010, pot arrests continued to rise.
It gets worse. The study found that about $37 million was spent enforcing marijuana possession laws in 2010 in Colorado — $19 million for police, $14 million for judicial/legal and more than $3 million for corrections.
Colorado’s prison system costs taxpayers a whopping $780 million a year, some of that outsourced to private contractors, and the state finds itself in the desperate situation of having to build more prisons to keep up with the conviction rate. Thanks to Colorado voters, several thousand fewer people will be entering the legal system each year, which will lower police, courts and prison costs. Legislation was passed in May to lower the number of drug offenders in the system and seek treatment over incarceration. The fewer people we put in prison for small drug offenses, the more we’ll all save.
And while I know better than to believe that’s how the savings will be divvied up, the money could certainly help towards regulation and education and public health and safety objectives that legalization opponents are concerned with.
I’ve said this before, but it always bears repeating. The war on marijuana and the larger War on Drugs remain a complete national failure that falsely boosts police arrest numbers and enriches those who supply law enforcement and operate our prison system, at the expense of thousands of our youths, while never once stopping the flow of drugs to those who have wanted them over the last 40 years. It’s now an annual $3 billion rathole from which Colorado and Washington have decided to opt out, while many other states are considering at least decriminalizing possession of small amounts.
There are still those who say the nation can’t afford to legalize marijuana. I say, as a majority of Coloradans have, that we can’t afford not to.
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