Latinos Also Especially Screwed Over by Pot Prohibition, Though Not As Much As Blacks

Last week the Drug Policy Alliance released a report that showed blacks in California are much more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, even though they are less likely to smoke pot. Today another DPA report highlights similar, though less dramatic, disparities between Latinos and non-Hispanic whites. In a coordinated move, the National Latino Officers Association, citing marijuana prohibition's disproportionate impact on Latinos, today endorsed Proposition 19, California's pot legalization initiative. The National Black Police Association and the California NAACP are supporting Prop. 19 for similar reasons.

The authors of the DPA report, led by Queens College sociologist Harry Levine, found that from 2006 to 2008 "major cities in California arrested and prosecuted Latinos for marijuana possession at double to nearly triple the rate of whites," despite the fact that "U.S. government surveys consistently find that young Latinos use marijuana at lower rates than young whites." Out of 33 cities examined in the report, Pasadena, Santa Monica, and Alhambra—where Latinos were almost three times as likely to be busted for marijuana offenses— had the biggest disparties. In Los Angeles, which accounts for one-tenth of the state's population, the ratio was 2 to 1.

Commenters here sometimes argue that the racial angle is a distraction from the fundamental injustice of punishing people for consuming politically incorrect intoxicants (or for helping others do so). Even if drug arrestees perfectly mirrored the demographic makeup of the general population (or the drug-offender population), they say, prohibition would still be wrong. Of course that's true, but the drug war's de facto discrimination against blacks and Latinos adds insult to injury. Leaving aside the explicitly racist roots of drug prohibition, when you have a law that 1) criminalizes widespread consensual activity and 2) is enforced against only a small subset of violators, there's a good chance it will impose an extra burden on vulnerable minorities. The fact that affluent, politically influential white people get away with the same drug offenses that land poor blacks and Latinos in jail makes this legal regime even more arbitrary and unfair. Furthermore, as the Prop. 19 debate shows, this aspect of the drug war's injustice can attract allies in the fight to overturn prohibition who otherwise might not focus on the issue.

This morning Matt Welch mocked his former colleagues at the Los Angeles Times for taking a position that suggests police should continue to bust people for marijuana possession while making sure that more of them are white—which also happens to be Rush Limbaugh's answer to the racially disproportionate impact of the war on drugs.

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  • Wind Rider||

    Gotta keep em away from the white wimmin! Harry said so!

  • ||

    Are these arrest statistics, or conviction? More arrests can be easily explained because more hispanics and blacks live in higher crime areas, and are simply stopped more often. There aren't too many black and whites (no pun intended) cruising affluent white neighborhoods. And there aren't too many white affluent kids hanging around Beverly Hills street corners.

    Of course, the important point is that busting anyone for weed is stupid. Making it a racial issues is also dumb.

  • ||

    Are these arrest statistics, or conviction?

    I think it's pretty rare to be arrested for possession and then beat the rap -- you're caught red-handed by definition, and courts usually aren't too concerned with police procedures and adherence to constitutional limits. My guess is most possession cases are plead out anyway.

    Making it a racial issues is also dumb.

    But the idea of selective enforcement is dangerous indeed, and this is a perfect example of it. The central claim is not that a large percentage of police officers are racists. It's that by their very nature, prohibition laws are bound to be subject to selective enforcement which ends up being wrought upon certain groups more heavily for the reasons you outlined.

  • ¢||

    Commenters here...

    Yeah, OK, but.

    Quasi-legalization will find a way to be racist. The current "medical" exception does. (Who gets a card? Whitey.) Prop 19 would just move some of the sites of the state's racism around. (Who's getting a distributorship? Whitey. Who's getting arrested for the dozen mj-related behaviors whose criminality 19 sustains? Not Whitey.)

    You can say that's an improvement...I guess. But if you're for law, you're for racism. It inheres in the thing—not philosophically, necessarily, but in fact, necessarily.

    So don't act all "Who, me?" It's you.

  • ||

    Who gets a card? Whitey.

    Huh? Any data on this? I was under the impression that anybody with a couple hundy and a story about having trouble sleeping could get carded up.

  • ||

    OTOH, probably having drug-related priors would prevent you from getting a medical card. Just like it prevents you from doing all sorts of things that might improve your life.

  • ||

    Yeah, if Snoop can get one, anybody can. I don't think there's a race factor in the cards at all.

  • ||

    Sure, but when prohibition has already been enforced unequally, you're not starting out on a level playing field, when it comes to getting medical cards, or anything else.

  • ||

    Right, but we're responding to the initial claim that administering access to medicinal or recreational marijuana is somehow just as inherently racist as enforcing drug prohibition. That claim seems questionable to say the least.

  • ||

    Not to put words in $0.01's mouth, but I don't think that is what he was saying. "Quasi-legalization" at the gov't discretion doesn't have to be explicitly racist to have outcomes that perpetuate racial disparities, because the state has already done that work.

    Prop. 19 is still a really important step in the right direction, but as long as you have the state's grubby hands involved, it is going to be complicated by all the pre-existing shit.

  • ||

    If that's what he's saying I have no real objection, but that's not really how I'm reading his comment.

  • PJR79||

    I don't fully buy into your presumption that the regulation will necessarily be 'racist' in its application. However, even if that were the case, not obtaining a license to sell because of your race is surely a less destructive outcome than getting tossed in jail for possession.

  • ||

    I almost universally detest the "racism" argument, no matter what topic is under discussion. In this case, though, if it gens up more support for prop 19 I am willing to chuck my principles (and principals) over board for the greater good.

    "Furthermore, as the Prop. 19 debate shows, this aspect of the drug war's injustice can attract allies in the fight to overturn prohibition who otherwise might not focus on the issue."

  • Law Student||

    But this is racism. How else do you describe a system where minorities are arrested more often despite being less likely to be smoking it?

    I am always skeptical when people throw out the race card but this one is backed up by the evidence. It is not just for marijuana either.

  • x,y||

    It is not just for marijuana either.

    Exactly, which is why it has no business being the central point in an opinion piece on Prop 19.

  • Wayne||

    There are plenty of rational, non-racist, reasons to explain the disparity. I won't regurgitate them, others here have done a fair job of describing them.

    My interest is in ending the drug war, which will benefit everybody but to paraphrase, "blacks and latinos most helped".

  • Federal Dog||

    Cops regularly canvas (what they designate) "high crime areas," during which they do brief interviews.

    To frisk people stopped, all they have to do is claim that someone made a furtive gesture that made them concerned for safety. Frisks often result in discovery of contraband grounding criminal charges.

    Because fewer white people live in those targeted areas, they are spared this treatment. That partially explains the disparity in numbers.

  • Wind Rider||

    That, plus whitey is not nearly so "fidgety"

  • ||

    As a socially awkward white guy, I have to take exception to that generalization.

  • sarcasmic||


    The fact that affluent, politically influential white people get away with the same drug offenses that land poor blacks and Latinos in jail makes this legal regime even more arbitrary and unfair.

    I'm sure that affluent, politically connected blacks and Latinos get away with the same drug offenses that land poor white people in jail.

    Our legal system is based upon who you know, who you can afford to hire, and who they know.

    Justice isn't even a consideration.

  • ||

    The drug war is at the shitty intersection of racist and classist. Just because not all claims of racism are legit doesn't mean we should gloss over it in all cases.

    A quick review of Balko's work will tell you that the best way to avoid being the victim of a drug raid is to avoid being poor and black whenever possible.

  • ||

    Classist, I agree. Racist, not so much. I will bet if you controlled for socio economic status in the stats, arrest rates would be about the same across all races.

  • ||

    I don't know, dude. I wouldn't want to be rich and in my BMW but be black in the wrong part of town; the cops are even more likely to target you then.

  • Wayne||

    True. And if you are white and in the wrong part of town you will targeted as well.

  • ||

    There is an argument to be made that the reason nonwhites are more likely to be poor & in crappy neighborhoods has to do with racism, but that isn't really the point. I don't think that the racial element is the main reason the WOD is evil, but it does make it especially evil.

    If pointing out the racial disparities convinces more people to oppose prohibition, I see no need to pretend they don't exist.

  • ||

    Right. Pointing out the regrettable racism inherent in drug war enforcement is not an abandonment of the larger philosophical objections. Nothing wrong with discussing nuances and unintended consequences.

  • Wind Rider||

    Exactly. Just because it's a floor wax doesn't rule it out as a tasty desert topping.

  • ||

    Nothing wrong with discussing nuances and unintended consequences.

  • ||

    racism inherent in drug war enforcement

    Come and see the racism inherent in the system! Come and see the racism inherent in the system!

  • Dennis the Peasant||

    Oh! Come and see the violence inherent in the system! Help, help, I'm being repressed!

  • Wayne||

    You are talking to a white guy (hillbilly, or maybe Apalachian Immigrant) who grew up poor in a Mexican neighborhood in Chicago in the 1960s. I can tell you from experience that the cops were pretty hard on all of us, including me. It was a very high crime neighborhood, so that is where the cops were.

  • x,y||

    the drug war's de facto discrimination against blacks and Latinos adds insult to injury

    Only if you're concerned with what groups, not individuals.

  • ||

    the drug war's de facto discrimination against blacks and Latinos adds insult to injury

    Tell that to every single white person who's been convicted of a bullshit drug charge.

  • Pip||

    "Last week the Drug Policy Alliance released a report that showed blacks in California are much more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, even though they are less likely to smoke pot."

    Total bullshit. I mean really. What did they do, drug test every respondant?

    BTW, I think it was O'Rielly telling Stossel that marijuanna should remain illegal because it is addictive. His reasoning? Because after alcohol, marijuana addiction is the next highest reason that people go into treatment. Oh really? Are you saying that the ease of drug testing for marijuana versus other drugs that flush out of the system in a couple of days coupled with manditory treatment (via probation or employer) for people who test positive doen't play into that?

  • sarcasmic||

    "Because after alcohol, marijuana addiction is the next highest reason that people go into treatment."

    The highest reason people go to treatment for marijuana is the legal system, not addiction.

  • Pip||

    Exactly.

  • sarcasmic||

    Did Stossel bring that up?

  • ||

    I don't think he would need to. Just brandishing his Moustache Of Authority would be plenty to muzzle O'Reilly for at least a week.

  • Pip||

    No. And I wish he would. The Pipster is not a weed smoker, but he has an aquantence whose employer has forced into rehab for weed twice now. The guy doesn't get high before or at work, just after. Were it not for his employer, he wouldn't be puffing up the statistics.

  • x,y||

    I wonder what Jacob's gut response to a pro-life proposition would be if they argued -- completely ignoring first principles, or at best writing them off with a "some commenters say ..." -- that the prop should pass because abortions disproportionately affect the poor and minorities, and oh by the way has racist roots.

  • ||

    Sullum readily acknowledged that "of course" it's true that criminal prohibition itself is a major problem, even ignoring arrest disparities. I don't think a long explanation of the obvious is required for him to make his point. He's not "ignoring first principles", he's assuming them from the get-go.

  • x,y||

    It depends on what Sullum means by "that" in "that's true."

    Commenters here sometimes argue that the racial angle is a distraction from the fundamental injustice of punishing people for consuming politically incorrect intoxicants (or for helping others do so). Even if drug arrestees perfectly mirrored the demographic makeup of the general population (or the drug-offender population), they say, prohibition would still be wrong. Of course that's true, but the drug war's de facto discrimination against blacks and Latinos adds insult to injury.

    There are two points before his "of course, that's true ..." First, that all this racial-disparity talk is a distraction. Second, that prohibition is still wrong even if the arrest numbers were not racially disproportionate.

    I read him as only acknowledging the second point as true, not conceding that columns like these are a distraction. Which they are.

  • ||

    I tend to read it the same way -- but I don't consider it a "distraction" to investigate tangents. Things would be pretty boring if saying anything besides "drug prohibition is inherently immoral and ineffective" constituted a distraction. There's nothing wrong with pointing this stuff out, it doesn't undermine any larger points.

  • x,y||

    True, but that's not what I'm saying, and it's not what Sullum was trying to preemptively address. I'm not aware of anyone on this board (the "commenters") claiming that pointing this out undermines larger points. What we are saying is it's a distraction from the fundamental point, which in my opinion can't be stressed enough. There are other problems with this approach too (see downthread).

  • ||

    What we are saying is it's a distraction from the fundamental point

    Yeah, I don't really get this. The case against prohibition isn't new to anyone here, and I have a hard time seeing how discussing its different consequences is going to "distract" anybody.

    Put another way: if you're in agreement that this doesn't undermine anything, what exactly is the harm of a "distraction" anyway?

  • x,y||

    While I don't believe it undermines the larger "why weed should be legal" argument, I think it does undermine other libertarian arguments. We're not the ones rabidly fixated on skin color, but this recent obsession with racial disparities is another arrow in the Rockwellian quiver. Reason isn't going to shake its (well-deserved) Cosmotarian label until it stops running pieces that might as have been written a HuffPo or Slate regular.

    Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but "don't you think the government should leave you alone" is a more compelling argument than "women and minorities hit hardest." I'm not a race hustler, though, so what do I know. Maybe that's the target audience for pieces like this, although I have to ask: If it is, why isn't Sullum publishing where arguments like this get some traction. All they do here is piss off the regulars and those of us who care more about first principles than being a professional, white concern troll.

  • ||

    Agreed about which points are more important, and your point about contradicting more general libertarian arguments is probably a good one to keep in mind.

    But I'm not particularly interested in Reason's rep or comparisons to other publications -- honestly if someone wants to accuse me of being a "Cosmotarian" I'll shrug and pack another bowl. That stuff just doesn't register with me. Whatever though, to each his own.

  • Oprah||

    I am more a pragmatist on this. I want the drug war finished for Libertarian reasons, but if playing the race card helps to achieve that goal then I am all for pointing out that "blacks and latinos are hardest hit".

    AFTER prop 19 passes, we can get back to being annoying and inconsequential Libertarians.

  • Wayne||

    Guess who "Oprah" is :-).

  • Breaking News From 1937||

    FDR Signs Marihuana Tax Act

    Negro Jazz Musicians and Mexican Laborers Hardest Hit

  • waffles||

    So it's been racist forever. This is one of those legacy racisms that we should just keep around for historical sake?

  • Spellman||

    Yes.

  • Oprah||

    I thought we was supposed to get married?

  • x,y||

    I willing to bet blacks and latinos are disproportionately arrested for other things libertarians don't necessarily believe should be legalized, even though they commit these crimes at the same or lower rates than whites. But this tells us absolutely nothing about whether these things should be crimes. You are absolutely missing the fundamental point, especially if this is written for the Reason audience. Take this garbage back to HuffPo where it belongs.

  • waffles||

    like broken taillights?

  • x,y||

    Maybe, I just couldn't think of a good example, and I don't have stats to back one even if I did.

    Anyway, it baffles me that Reason takes this approach. Not only is it pandering to collectivist groupthink, it also elevates feelings to the level of actual harm. Because there's no other way to take Sullum's claim that it "adds insult to injury" seriously. Since when did shit like this matter to libertarians?

    Of course, the racial disparities are symptomatic of law enforcement tactics and priorities. But again, this has absolutely no bearing on whether MJ should be legalized.

  • Wind Rider||

    Keep in mind that they're writing to a larger audience than to the hard-core libertarian audience. People that get all squeamish when they hear things like "Q: Should Heroin vending machines on streetcorners be legal? A: Yes, as long as they aren't government owned."

  • x,y||

    Public streetcorners? :)

  • Pip||

    At the intersections of ROOOOOOADS!

  • zoltan||

    It tells us absolutely nothing about whether these things should be crimes; it does tell us whether the effects of prohibition are hitting different minorities disproportionately. Racism exists. That doesn't mean Prop 19 should pass to stop racism, but that is one of the side effects of it.

  • x,y||

    But it's not an "effect of prohibition." It's an effect of law enforcement tactics and priorities. We know this is true because you see the same thing with other crimes. Marijuana isn't special.

  • Wind Rider||

    It's one of the consequences - intended or not is fairly irrelevant. Kind of a "how much sucktitude can dance on the head of the pin being jammed in your eye?"

  • ||

    If repealing prohibition will bring an end to this tentacle of racism, isn't that enough? Do we really need to resolve some kind of Aristotelian chicken-and-egg conundrum?

  • ||

    Agreed -- but must every single piece on prohibition make a concerted effort at telling us something "about whether these things should be crimes?" Isn't there value in identifying undesirable outcomes even if they don't speak directly to the fundamental logical flaws involved?

    Hell, talking about drug war violence in Mexico could be characterized in exactly the same way. After all, whether people are dying in Mexico or not, criminal prohibition of drug activity is still wrong.

    Sullum isn't obligated to re-state the Central Anti-Prohibition Thesis every single time he writes about the drug war.

  • ||

    Latinos Also Especially Screwed Over by Pot Prohibition, Though Not As Much As Blacks

    Trying for a job as a NYT headline writer, Jacob?

    ;P

  • fyodor||

    Before judging how relevant this is to the debate, I'd wanna know how it compares to other crimes.

    For instance, perhaps whites commit more vandalism but get arrested for it less as well? That of course wouldn't be a good argument against vandalism being a crime.

    OTOH, I could easily imagine victimless crimes being especially susceptible to such disparities since there's no victim and thus rarely a complainant and thus differences in arrests may more directly reflect differences in police interaction and, by extension (didn't want to say "thus" again!), dramatizes what inevitably goes wrong when you have victimless crimes!

  • ||

    Pot possession in the proverbial picking your feet in Poughkeepsie. It's a surrogate crime that the cops use on people they think need to be harassed. Cops, of course, will say they are harassing bad guys, not brown guys. My guess is that legalization just forces them to think of another way to harass. So to me the racial disparity argument doesn't help much.

  • ||

    Government surveys?

    What questions did they ask? "Do you smoke pot? Check yes or no."

    I'm guessing white kids would be more likely to say, "Screw it. Yeah." than their counterparts in other demographics who are more likely afraid of getting busted.

    Cheech and Chong proved beyond a doubt that Whites and Latinos like the weed equally.

  • ||

    Blacks and hispanics are more likely to be arrested for all offenses, because they're more likely to commit crimes. The fact that one of those types of offenses shouldn't be illegal doesn't prove that the enforcement of prohibition is currently racist, either in its intent or in practice. It's entirely possible that the intent and practice of drug enforcement is actually favorable to blacks and hispanics.

    E.g., suppose that a cop stops a black or hispanic for several suspected illegal activities, and exercises his discretion by busting them for only the least of the many offenses they could be arrested for, and that least offense is drug possession. Meanwhile, suppose they bust a white kid for drug possession when that's the only offense they've committed. That policy would actually be favorable to blacks & hispanics, and favorable to whites.

    Of course drug prohibition is racist; drugs popular with minorities were intentionally chosen for prohibition, which is why "hemp" is called by its Spanish name, "marijuana" in the laws and anti-drug propaganda. And of course the laws should be repealed, but bogus statistics of racial disparity that don't prove anything aren't terribly helpful to the debate.

  • J_L_B||

    Third factor causation people…

    This stuff is more likely to be peddled to inner city and poor minority neighborhoods where rampant crime makes for a more favorable environment in which operate, and the normal societal structure fails to prevent rampant use.

    Couple that with the increased rate of arrests for other, often violent crimes committed in these neighborhoods, and its no wonder cops will arrest a higher number of minorities for drugs.

  • ||

    Below is a letter to the editor of the LA Times. Another high ranking cop in support of prop 19, (retired, of course, why are the always "retired" before they have the courage to speak up).

    Re "Many effects of a pot law are unknown," Oct. 25

    Unfounded scare tactics have supported the continued prohibition of pot for 73 years. Now the prohibitionists are hard-pressed to invent something new about the evils of pot itself, so they allege that Proposition 19 "is a jumbled legal nightmare" that will lead to stoned nurses in hospitals, drugged motorists and more high teenagers.

    In reality, model legislation for cities and counties will follow, as will state regulations. Workplace rules will not change, and there is evidence that the use of marijuana will not increase.

    However, if we don't pass Proposition 19, pot will still be available to children and the unprecedented crime and violence by cartels and street gangs will continue unabated.

    Stephen Downing

    Palm Desert

    The writer is a retired Los Angeles Police Department deputy chief.

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