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Cannabis is well on its way to becoming legal in over half of the fifty United States, but many citizens have been left behind in our prison and juvenile incarceration systems for small possession charges that are no longer considered crimes in these states. President Obama’s administration has been working on pardoning or releasing some of them, but the prison population in this country remains predominantly Black despite his best efforts. In many inner cities, the school, judicial, and prison systems seem set up for African American failure – with Latino students often following closely behind African Americans as the most incarcerated individuals in the United States. This article will examine the true numbers surrounding cannabis arrests in the United States, both in the recent past and currently, and take a look at solutions that might help release small-time offenders from prison and let them begin their lives again in a legalized setting or with other options.

Is There a Difference in How Many Blacks and Whites are Arrested for Marijuana?

The simple answer to this question is yes, and so is the complicated answer. In 2013, The New York Times reported that U.S. federal data indicated that “[b]lack Americans were nearly four times as likely as whites to be arrested on charges of marijuana possession,” going back as far as 2010. In Iowa, Washington D.C., Minnesota, and Illinois, Blacks were seven to eight times as likely to be arrested as whites for marijuana possession. This holds true even though Blacks and Whites use marijuana with roughly the same rates (Whites actually use more).

This is a gaping disparity that needs to be addressed immediately, not only by the federal government, but also by state and federal police forces in these states – it is unacceptable for one particular group of the U.S. population to be persecuted in a country that strives for equality for all. The federal data was collected over a period of ten years, according to the Times; and over that time “public attitudes toward marijuana softened and a number of states decriminalized its use.” Still, over half of all 2010 and 2011 drug-related arrests were based on marijuana-related charges.

ACLU’s Findings on U.S. Marijuana Law Enforcement

Ezekiel Edwards, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Criminal Law Reform Project’s lead author, stated that “[w]e found that in virtually every county in the [U.S.], police have wasted taxpayer money enforcing marijuana laws in a racially biased manner.” Essentially, Blacks and Whites in the United States are both living in a time of change for marijuana laws; however, Whites experience much more freedom than Blacks in many cases.

The ACLU estimates that states spend $3,613,969,972 on marijuana enforcement each year. This astronomical amount of money could be going to public programs like food banks, helping the unemployed obtain better educations and job opportunities, and building facilities like community centers and job training centers to increase and better equip unemployed or underemployed people for work. Since the damage done by substances like alcohol, heroin, opiates, and methamphetamines is much higher than the harm caused by cannabis, there no longer seems to be any reason for these arrests – and they need to stop.

How Many African Americans Are Currently Incarcerated for Marijuana Possession?

The ACLU’s report “The War on Marijuana in Black and White” found that: 1) marijuana possession arrests increased from 2001 to 2010 (clearly indicating that the federal and state-level wars against marijuana are not working), and 2) racial disparities increased from 2001 to 2010 in marijuana possession arrests. We know that since 2002, the United States has had the highest incarceration rate in the world. The U.S. rate is five times higher than most other countries, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). These rates are alarming, if not shocking. They are even more shocking when the percentage of Black prisoners is measured: 6% of all Black males aged 30 to 39 are in prison, compared to 2% of all Latinos and 1% of all White males. Of these prisoners, approximately half are in prison for “drug-related charges,” which includes marijuana but not to the exclusion of other drugs – it’s very difficult to find incarceration on numbers that are focused solely on marijuana charges, even from the BJS. The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) found that 87% of marijuana arrests are only for possession, and not for illegally selling or growing marijuana. The MPP has been working for over ten years to change marijuana laws so that they are applied more liberally and less tyrannically to U.S. society – to prevent the unfair and racist persecution of people for marijuana possession and use (you can find their accomplishments here).

Why Are African Americans More Likely to Be Arrested for Marijuana Possession?

According to the ACLU, it may be partially racial bias that is responsible for higher arrest rates for marijuana possession in African American populations, but it may also be a result of a shift from focusing on rehabilitation in the prison industrial system to punishment. In other words, we are not giving our young people a chance to correct their lives, or even a chance to complete high school in some cases. There have been cases of judges who were paid (PAID!) to hand down extreme prison sentences to young offenders in order to create federal and state revenue for prisons; it’s pretty despicable, to say the least.

According to IndieWire, there are 2,500 U.S. citizens serving life without parole prison sentences for crimes committed when they were juveniles; we are the only country that does this, and it’s against international law. Some of these young people have committed horrible crimes, but some have simply been found in possession of marijuana while underage. As reported in the New York Times, the “outrageously long sentences” handed down to marijuana possession arrestees (the majority of whom are Black, as we now know) are not the whole story. Of those marijuana arrestees who are not given prison sentences, their records may prevent them from attending university, applying for jobs, or obtaining loans for houses or cars.

Just for reference, the New York City police department made less than 800 marijuana-related arrests in 1991; in 2010, they made over 59,000. Nationwide, that number is 8.2 million – at least 8 in 10 are arrested for possession and nothing else. The arrests for marijuana possession in 2011 are greater than for all other violent crimes combined. When the majority of these arrestees are African American, sweeping, non-reconsidered law enforcement of this nature can result in the devastation of communities, entire city neighborhoods, and the lives of juveniles and their families who may never escape the incarceration system entirely.

What Can We Do About Unfair & Racist Marijuana Arrest Rates in the United States?

In light of recent strides in new legislation for marijuana legalization, these practices are outdated, unfair, and literally racist. A vast reconsideration of marijuana prosecution and law in this country is necessary and should be undertaken immediately. Organizations like the Marijuana Policy Project are a great place to start, as is governmental reconsideration of current marijuana policy at both the federal and state levels. President Obama has made similar statements, both recently and in 2008, concerning the non-priority of marijuana arrests for his administration, and 2013 New York Governor Andrew Cuomo suggested decriminalizing 15 grams or less for possession. In March of 2016, Obama commuted 61 sentences of inmates who were “harshly sentenced in the nation’s war on drugs,” but 9,115 more prisoners have applied for clemency – in other words, it is not nearly enough to level the playing field for African Americans in this country, but it is a step in the right direction. Let’s hope the next POTUS will continue Obama’s policy, and bring the numbers down even more.

As James Gilligan, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at New York University found, recidivism (previous offenders returning to prison or being rearrested within three years of being released) is a major problem in the U.S.; he believes that rehabilitation and not cruel and unusual punishment is the way toward reducing it – and I agree. Pressuring the federal government and state governments to revise and reconsider marijuana law, law enforcement agencies to operate fairly and judiciously, and marijuana industry leaders to speak out in support of revising marijuana laws are our best options.

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