California NAACP Backs Marijuana Legalization, Citing Racial Disparities


This week the California NAACP endorsed a marijuana legalization initiative that will appear on the state's ballot in November, citing dramatic racial disparities in marijuana arrests. A report issued by the Drug Policy Alliance to coincide with the NAACP endorsement finds that blacks in California's 25 largest counties are two to four times as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana possession, even though survey data indicate they are no more likely to use the drug. The findings of the DPA study (PDF), which was led by Queens College sociologist Harry Levine, are similar to those of a 2008 study that Levine did for the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Do these data show that cops are racist? That is not how Levine and his co-authors, Jon Gettman and Loren Siegel, interpret them:

Young blacks and Latinos use marijuana at lower rates than young whites. So why are police in California arresting young blacks and Latinos at higher rates than young whites, and at greater numbers than their percentages of the population? Based on our studies of policing in New York and other cities, we do not think the arrests are mostly a result of personal bias or racism on the part of individual patrol officers and their immediate supervisors. Rather, this is a system-wide phenomenon, occurring in every county and nearly every police department in California and elsewhere.

Police departments deploy most patrol and narcotics police to certain neighborhoods, usually designated "high crime." These are disproportionately low-income, and disproportionately African-American and Latino neighborhoods. It is in these neighborhoods where the police make most patrols, and where they stop and search the most vehicles and individuals, looking for "contraband" of any type in order to make an arrest. The item that young people in any neighborhood are most likely to possess, which can get them arrested, is a small amount of marijuana. In short, the arrests are racially biased mainly because the police are systematically "fishing" for arrests in only some neighborhoods, and methodically searching only some "fish." This produces what has been termed "racism without racists."

The California NAACP nevertheless is understandably concerned about the racially disproportionate impact of this policy, just as it was understandably concerned about the racially disproportionate impact of mindlessly severe federal crack sentences (which were initially championed by black politicians). The ballot measure it backs, the Control and Tax Cannabis Initiative of 2010 (a.k.a. Proposition 19), would allow adults 21 or older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and grow it for their own use. It also would authorize local governments to license and regulate the production and sale of marijuana.

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  1. we do not think the arrests are mostly a result of personal bias or racism on the part of individual patrol officers

    Love that "mostly". Damning, as they say, with faint praise.

    1. There is plenty of evidence that some police officers do have questionable attitudes about race. Are you denying that? Come to Riverside then.

      1. Some of those that work forces...

  2. I would wager that, at least since the Civil Rights movement, folks believing to be acting in the best interest of blacks have done far more damage to the black community than overt racists.

    1. That is a pretty good bet. They used the welfare system to create any number of perverse incentives and then used the drug war to terrorize those who could not escape.

    2. Sort of a microcosm of politics in America, then?

    3. Sort of a microcosm of politics in America, then?

  3. Of course, the high correlation between racism and class stratas is due to racism. So it's not the police keeping the colored man down, it's society.

    Or so some liberal will point out in order to keep the racial boogeyman alive.

    1. So it's not the police keeping the colored man down, it's black society.

      1. Don't be snitchin'
        Don't be actin' white.

        If you reject the culture of the dominant class, your odds of succeeding drop dramatically.

        The Japanese-Americans were held in internment camps. When was the last time you read anything about Japanese gang shootings?

        1. We prefer the swift and efficient stroke of the katana. Seppuku will keep the outer territories in line.

        2. Don't be snitchin' is a reasonable policy that members of all races should adapt. Never talk to the police.

      2. Everybody who is streetwise knows that you don't buy pot from a Black guy, that's a guaranteed way to pay too much for bunk pot.

        Buy your pot from Mexicans, Rednecks, and white people from Northern California.

        1. That is the kind of information that gets passed from father to son.

  4. My grandfather used to say "A stopped clock is right twice a day." Of course he meant a 12 hour analog clock but you get the point. This is such a case.

    I rarely can say this but, I agree the the NAACP on something.

  5. Statistical Nit Picking - the survey indicating young blacks use marijuana at a lower rate than white or latino youth appears to be a self-administered questionnaire. It is very much possible that young blacks actually use marijuana more frequently than whites or latinos and simply are less inclined to report that behaviour in a survey. I seriously doubt that black youth are so disinclined to report marijuana use in a survey that their use rates are in actuality 4 times greater than white/latino youth, I'm just a stickler for scientific method.

    1. Maybe blacks are 2-4 times more likely to act "loco" when they're "holding".

      I seriously doubt that, but I'm a stickler for the scientific method, too.

  6. "Young blacks and Latinos use marijuana at lower rates than young whites."

    Bullshit. It's gotta be about the same for all.

    1. And they created some of the best music of the 20th century.

      1. I do suspect it's about the same across the board. Thus/regardless, I am skeptical that blacks should be arrested 2-4 times as often as whites for marijuana possession.

        1. Rate is the same but here is the reason: white people only get high in private places, while blacks and latinos are more often smoke pot on the street or in a car. I 'highly' doubt cops are knocking down people's doors in any neighborhood because they smell some reefer.

  7. Then it's true that Negro Jazz musicians smoke pot?

    1. Do you mean the marijuana cigarettes?

      1. Yeah, reefers, man.

    2. A clear threat to the morals of America's youth!

  8. Sullum - the school is Queens College.

    The Q-boro just doesn't get the love it deserves.

    1. Nas and Mobb Deep are quite terrific, but that's all I know Queensboro for.

      1. Or Queensbridge, properly.

  9. The Drug Policy Alliance contends drug laws are racist because blacks are arrested at proportionately higher rates even though "survey data indicate they [are no more likely to use the drug" than whites.

    It's indisputible that the war on marijuana was rooted in racism and ignorance. However, the argument that blacks are particularly targeted for marijuana arrest is dubious at best. The comparison of arrest rates to usage rates to support this argument is unpersuasive. I think it is far more likely that black marijuana possessors behave in ways that are more likely to result in arrest. I don't have any statistics, but the faces I've seen in videos about Californian medical marijuana clinics tend to be pale. My sense is that blacks are also more likely to buy and sell marijuana in an open-air venue that would be more likely to result in police detection. Perhaps Billy Murphy has the best explanation. In "10 Rules for Dealing with the Police", he suggests that because black drug users tend to be less affluent than white drug users, they purchase marijuana in smaller quantities. Since the probability of arrest is roughly proportional to the number of transactions and the time spent holding in public places, blacks are naturally arrested at a higher rate than whites who typically purchase less frequently and keep their stash at home.

    Of course, the war on drugs sucks even if its current prosecution were entirely innocent of racism. It's just that racism is a pretty lame argument against the war on drugs except as a reminder of how the whole marijuana scare got started.

    1. When I was in Portland, some white dudes were selling weed pretty openly. I know, anecdotal at best.

      1. I have never seen anything like that in my life.

    2. Buying weed from black dudes is just asking for shitty weed.

      Anecdotal (and ripped off from Half Baked or Chapelle's stand up) at best.

    3. Whites buy and sell like it's Amway, blacks buy and sell on the street corners. I know of what I speak.

      1. With the exception that the "parties" are always at the dealer's house. YMMV.

      2. Watch out. I got called a racist for saying that on here once .I wonder where those commenters live? I suspect it isn't a very diverse neighborhood

      3. Sorry, EAP, you said Amway, but for some reason I read "Tupperware". Your analogy is exact.

    4. It's indisputible that the war on marijuana was rooted in racism and ignorance.

      For the time it came in, certainly. But does anyone here doubt that had those not been factors at all, that by now the marijuana laws would still be roughly what they are today? It may have taken another 20-50 years to get to that point, but it would've. And the more that was known about marijuana that was correct, the sooner it would've happened.

  10. I think it is more a matter of neighborhoods than race. Suburban police are more relaxed than urban police.

    1. Ehh, I dunno if that's true. I live in suburban Philadelphia and no cop here would ever turn down a chance to arrest someone for a marijuana offense, whereas cops in the city turn a blind eye all the time. I think the difference is more that in black/Latin neighborhoods, drug markets are out in the open, whereas in white neighborhoods, the deals happen behind closed doors.

  11. Great. That's all we need. Stoned black guys with handguns that might still be pissed about slavery. Are fuckin' people crazy?

    Too early? Or is that racist?

  12. Schedule I, the list of drugs with "no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States and a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision" includes cannabis and cannabinoids, despite the issuance of 2003 U.S. Patent No. 6630507*, "Cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuroprotectants ".

    Schedule III Marinol is a synthetic chemical that works like THC, a psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. It is administered at 100 percent strength, up to five times more powerful than the strongest available strains on the black market, about twice as strong as hashish. Generically named Dronabinol, warning labels specifically PERMIT driving and using machinery when users know how the medicine affects them.

    For millions of Americans arrested over demonstrably false claims and outright perjury, reparations are long past due.

    Whether waged against black, white, brown or red citizens, drug war IS crime.

    * Patent No. 6630507: http://tinyurl.com/classactionlawsuit

  13. It is poor logic to support the repeal of a law because of racial bias in arrests, as by that logic many good laws would have to be repealed. The effort should be to reduce racism, not repeal laws. Moreover, in California, the law regarding possession of a small amount of marijuana is a small fine and no jail time. Drug use is a huge drain on the black community or any community, not because of law enforcement but because it impacts education, employment, families, kids, you name it. Drugs act on the brain to diminish reason, and addiction is the antithesis of reason. Marijuana can be addictive, especially among young people. Outcomes for those who do not use marijuana are better than for those who do, according to studies of thousands of young people by Rand. I work with at-risk youth, and one of the common denominators with school drop out rates is early marijuana use. Popular culture targeted at all teenagers associates marijuana with being cool and having material items, without the message about how to get the education to be able to afford them.

    Arrests for marijuana possession in California are usually associated with traffic stops, other crimes, or use or or near schools. According to Mark Kleiman of UCLA, who is not a "drug warrior," it is a myth that cops are going around looking to arrest people on marijuana charges or that people are in prison for smoking a joint. But if they see four or five teenage dudes, white or black, in a car with the windows up, it is a giveaway. In California we have diversion which gives young people a chance to get treatment and get back on track.

    If the NAACP wants to work for the advancement of the Black community, it should be working toward drug prevention in the black community, not encouraging drug use, which the marijuana initiative will do. Poor decision by the CA NAACP.

    1. I think the CA NAACP is doing the right thing. Aside from racist enforcement patterns, the prohibition laws themselves are fundamentally flawed. Yes, people do go to jail for cannabis, and lives do get ruined. Ever heard of violating probation by failing a drug test, or toking up in a so-called "school zone" well after hours? If you have it in multiple containers, especially with more than $50 in your wallet, than it's "possession with intent to distribute". Arrests and convictions can also haunt you the rest of your life. Also, real crime is created from the market being controlled by criminals. And there is no evidence that such laws actually reduce the use of any substance, much less pot. And let's not forget the racist history of such laws. California, the first state to ban it, first aimed its anti-pot laws against Mexicans in 1913. The rest is history.

      As for the kids you work with, the plural of "anecdote" is not data. Correlation is not the same as causation. According to the best studies, school failure usually precedes substance use, including cannabis.

      While some individuals do indeed have problems from cannabis itself, the vast majority do not and never will. Those that do will not agonize over its legal status anyway.

      Please don't lump all drugs together either. Cannabis is not coke, crack, speed, or smack, and should not be compared with these truly dangerous substances. Though no psychoactive or bioactive substance is absolutely safe for everyone, cannabis, by just about any objective measure, is safer than alcohol, tobacco, many prescription drugs, Tylenol, aspirin, or even some foods. As far as addictiveness, it is less addictive than coffee, but somewhat more so than LSD.

      I am not endorsing the use of cannabis or any other (legal or illegal) drugs, but there is no objective reason why cannabis should be illegal, especially since significantly more dangerous substances and activities are currently legal. The laws against cannabis have done more harm to the black community (as well as the rest of us) than cannabis has ever done.

      Vote Yes on Prop 19!

    2. Oh yeah, and forced treatment for those who don't need it (the majority of cannabis users) takes away precious resources from those who really do. And there's still that pesky record too.

    3. addiction is the antithesis of reason.

      I am addicted to blogging on REASON. I find that it stimulates my creativity rather than impacting my ability to think. My drug of choice? Coffee. About a Pot a day.

      Kids have to be taught how to smoke pot just as you would teach them how to drink responsibly. When I was a teenager I drank Miller until I barfed. Now, I drink the driest Scotch I can afford and I never get a hangover.

      You have to know when to say when to blogging too. If you will please excuse me, I am going to go take a shower.

  14. I'm conflicted: good idea, really bad reasoning.

  15. brainwashing and misinformation is what has allowed weed to become such a heated topic these days. majority of people get their info and opinions via the same channel. places like the internet are starting to allow the truth to seep through the cracks... keep up the good work guys.

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