We need to talk about it

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Even after the passage of Amendment 64, people of color are still arrested more often than whites for pot-related charges.
Wikimedia Commons

Racial prejudice is like climate change: pretending it doesn’t exist, or that humans aren’t a part of causing it, only makes the problem worse.

In November 2014, an article in USA Today suggested minorities receive disparate treatment in Boulder, leading City Council to commission a study from an independent firm to check those claims.

According to the report by the independent consulting group Hillard Heintze, “Independent Analysis of Police Data and Review of Professional Police Complaint Processes,” black people account for only 1 percent of Boulder’s population, but in the areas where police have discretion, like traffic citations and misdemeanors, they were cited at more than twice that rate every year since 2011. In 2015, the disproportion hit a five-year peak.

This is a problem that belongs to everyone, but holds a special place in the marijuana community.

“We need to talk about it,” writes Shaleen Title, a co-founding partner of THC Staffing Group. “The marijuana industry is different from Hollywood, tech and every other industry currently struggling with a ‘diversity’ problem. Because this industry was created by campaigns using talking points about the systematic destruction of communities of color to encourage voters to pass legalization. I know, because I helped run those campaigns, and I used those talking points myself. We talked the talk; now we have to walk the walk.”

Amendment 64 passed because it was successful in drawing support from non-users in Colorado, not just with promises of tax income to be used for schools, but with promises of decriminalization that would lessen laws against the possession, use and growth of cannabis. Post-prohibition, that conversation has been overshadowed by the concerns of establishing the new industry, putting regulations in place and protecting public safety.

According to data from a March 2015 report by the Drug Policy Alliance, “Colorado Marijuana Arrests After Amendment 64,” total cases for possession decreased in Boulder County in the years following Amendment 64, but racial bias persists in citations and cases that do occur.

In 2010, Boulder County ranked in the top five counties for the most marijuana possession cases in the state, with 667. To measure the racial disparity therein, the study used an arrest rate, calculating the number of arrests per 100,000 population. For 2010, the white arrest rate is 259 and the black arrest rate is 1,032

Between January and September of 2014, Boulder County saw only 52 possessions cases, suggesting a 92 percent decrease compared to 2010 numbers. For these 52 cases, the white arrest rate is 160 and the black arrest rate is 334, more than double the white rate. This data indicates that while the number of marijuana possession arrests has dropped, law enforcement practices that produce racial disparities in such arrests have not changed since the passage of Amendment 64.

And, as in the case of marijuana possession arrests, the data reveals significant racial disparities in marijuana public consumption citations. In Boulder the white rate for 2014 is 19 while the black rate is 37.

As the laws change and the total number of possession cases decrease, racial disparities persist, primarily due to the specific increase of charges for public use combined with the disproportionate rates of police contact in communities of color.

Among the recommendations offered by Hillard Heintze to Boulder City Council to address overall bias was to begin collecting data about police stops made with the highest degree of discretion, such as traffic stops or field interviews. To explain, Alex Weiss of Hillard Heintze offered the example of the low level of discretion in an arrest for a person suspected of homicide versus the high degree of discretion involved in the decision to stop one car out of all the cars on the road.

Tracking high-discretionary stops and interaction is key to understanding the bias that is now proven to exist, not just for the authorities but for the community so that it might monitor and hold authorities accountable.

Currently, there is no data collected about traffic stops or field interviews in Boulder, although the Boulder Police Department is working on putting systems in place to do so by the end of the year.

City staff and council expressed concern that asking about race and ethnicity is a sensitive issue.

“Well, glaring racial disparities in law enforcement are also a sensitive issue and progressive police departments can figure out a way to do this,” said Mark Silverstein, legal director for the ACLU, at the Feb. 29 council meeting.

With mounting evidence that we are living in a racially biased society, how do we check our prejudice?

The change begins with City officials making steps to acknowledge and firmly articulate the problem and their part in it, not so that the community can assign blame, but so that the problem can be addressed with the urgency it deserves. 

This is not only essential to the integrity of policing, but as a follow-through on the promises that brought about the decriminalization of marijuana. As the industry grows and prospers, providing profit to industry owners and valuable tax dollars to the community, it cannot be forgotten that people with criminal records for possession are being kept out of the industry, and those people are mostly black.