ACLU Report: Racist Marijuana Laws Target Blacks

Jun 04, 2013 | Updated Aug 04, 2013

The war on marijuana is racist. That's the conclusion of a major new report released Tuesday by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Among the alarming findings in "The War on Marijuana in Black and White" is that while marijuana use rates between blacks and whites are comparable, blacks are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.

The report -- the first to evaluate marijuana arrests rates by race on a national scope -- finds that the disparity isn't just limited to inner cities. In over 96 percent of the counties the ACLU examined, which cover 78 percent of the U.S. population, blacks are arrested at higher rates than whites for marijuana possession.

And, while criminal justice observers have long known that drug arrests are conducted on a racially disproportionate basis, the report finds that the disparity has widened even further over the past decade. ACLU's analysis reveals that while annual marijuana arrests have risen over 10 years, the arrest rate for whites remained constant, meaning that the overall national increase in arrests is largely attributable to a whole lot more black people getting busted.

This clear unfair targeting of our nation's failed marijuana laws has prompted a growing number of leaders from black communities to raise their voices in favor of reform. Several state branches of the NAACP have endorsed legalization and played a crucial role in last year's successful campaigns to end marijuana prohibition in Colorado and Washington State. Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, NJ, has declared the war on drugs a failure and endorsed reforms like medical marijuana laws. Jesse Jackson called the drug war "a new Jim Crow offensive against people of color." Al Sharpton says racial disparities in drug law enforcement have "undermined the legitimacy of our criminal justice system." And Actor Morgan Freeman says marijuana prohibition is "just the stupidest law possible."

But there's one black leader who's conspicuously absent from the serious conversation about reforming these laws: President Barack Obama.

Worse than simply being silent about the racially disproportionate impact of these laws, though, the administration of the president who used to smoke a lot of marijuana as a young man has actively stood in the way of sensible marijuana reform at nearly every step.

Despite campaign pledges to respect state marijuana laws, Obama's Justice Department closed down more state-legal medical marijuana providers in one term than were shuttered by the feds during two terms of the Bush administration.

The official White House marijuana webpage says that legalization "hinders recovery efforts and poses a significant health and safety risk to all Americans, especially our youth."

Right, because there's nothing like a criminal record to keep our young people safe and healthy.

While he's undoubtedly a busy guy, President Obama has had ample opportunity to speak up about the need to modernize our country's outdated approach to marijuana. In fact, he has been forced to address it a number of times. The White House occasionally asks people to submit and vote on policy questions via the Internet, and marijuana legalization usually ranks as the number one issue. Sadly, though, rather than giving the people who take the time to participate in these online forums the thoughtful answers they deserve, the president routinely ignores or dismisses them, sometimes literally laughing at and making fun of people for asking.

But this issue is no laughing matter for the thousands of young black men who get put into handcuffs and jail cells every year for engaging in the same activities young marijuana enthusiast Barry Obama used to partake in on Hawaiian beaches back in the day. It's probably safe to say that had he been caught by police back then, he likely wouldn't have ended up in a position to answer questions from YouTube town halls in the White House East Room.

How much can one president really do about these longstanding policies, though? When pressed about how the nation's alarmingly high arrest rates square with the administration's insistence that it's pursuing a health-focused anti-drug strategy that recognizes that "we can't arrest our way out of the drug problem," federal officials often say they have no control over the state and local police departments that make the bulk of drug busts in the country.

But in a telephone interview with me, ACLU's Ezekiel Edwards, who authored the new report, placed much of the blame on federal grant programs that perversely incentivize local law enforcement agencies to make as many drug arrests as possible.

Edwards says that if given the opportunity, he'd tell the president that, "You need to do a better job of making sure that federal money is not going to police agencies that are wasting it making racially biased marijuana arrests." He also pointed out that federal prosecution of marijuana offenses is rising. It'd be pretty hard for the administration to wash its hands of blame for that.

To date, the president and those who work for him have remained mostly mum about how the federal government plans to respond to the historic state marijuana legalization laws now being enacted in Colorado and Washington.

ACLU's Edwards called the growing polling support for legalization around the country "a smart and sensible move forward" and said the federal government should allow the new state laws to be implemented without interference. "Let states try to push forward with more intelligent drug policy. Move away from this failed 40-year, trillion-dollar war on drugs."

Let's hope the ACLU report and the attention it is sure to generate encourage the president to devote some time during his second term to finally giving this issue and the voters who support it the serious respect and consideration they deserve.

Tom Angell is chairman of Marijuana Majority.