Targeting Blacks for Marijuana

In 2008, police departments in California made more than 60,000 marijuana possession arrests, three times as many as in 1990. The people arrested are disproportionately African Americans1 and Latinos, overwhelmingly young people, especially young men.

In their recent report to the California legislature, Daniel Macallair and Mike Males documented this unprecedented shift by California law enforcement since 1990 – from targeting marijuana manufacturing and sales offenses to targeting low-level marijuana possession offenses.

Since 1990, arrests for nearly every serious crime have declined in California. Yet arrests for possession of marijuana, usually for very small amounts, have tripled. Macallair and Males also documented the racial disparities in California’s marijuana possession arrests as shown in the state’s official criminal justice data.

In 2008, blacks and Latinos made up less than 44% of the state’s population, but together they constituted 56% of the people arrested in California for possessing marijuana.

The data presented here confirm and extend these findings on racial disparities in California’s marijuana possession arrests by drawing on arrest data from the U.S. Government’s FBI Uniform Crime Report and the U.S. Census. The graphs and table in this report use arrest data averaged for five years, 2004 through 2008, showing these racially-skewed or biased arrests for marijuana possession are not a one-year fluke, but a consistent pattern extending over many years.

Although U.S. marijuana use data includes Latinos, the FBI Uniform Crime Report arrest data does not identify Latinos as a distinct group and categorizes nearly all arrests of Latinos as arrests of “whites.”

As a result the graphs, table and discussion in this report focus on the marijuana arrest disparities between whites and blacks, though the FBI’s bundling of Latinos with whites actually underestimates the racial disparities shown here. 

The substantial disparities in marijuana possession arrest rates between whites and blacks cannot be explained by their patterns of marijuana use. As the marijuana use graphs on page 5 show, U.S. government studies consistently find that young blacks use marijuana at lower rates than young whites.

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Ethan Nadelmann is the founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, the leading organization in the United States promoting alternatives to the war on drugs.

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