Drug War

New Study Highlights Dramatic Racial Disparities in California Pot Arrests


On Wednesday I noted, apropos of Attorney General Eric Holder's promise to "vigorously enforce" marijuana prohibition in California whether or not Proposition 19 passes, that the government has a long way to go on that score: It currently catches, at best, 3 percent of marijuana offenders each year (while the feds are responsible for less than 1 percent of those arrests, representing less than 0.03 of all offenders). These numbers are generous, since they assume that data based on self-reports in surveys do not understate the prevalence of marijuana consumption, which they probably do. In any case, it's clear that only a small percentage of people who violate the ban on marijuana are getting arrested, a situation that invites arbitrary enforcement. A report released today by the Drug Policy Alliance and the California NAACP illustrates that problem, finding that from 2006 to 2008 "police in 25 of California's major cities arrested blacks at four, five, six, seven, and even 12 times the rate of whites." The racial disparities are not explained by differences in drug use, since the government's survey data indicate that "young whites use marijuana at higher rates than young blacks."

The authors—Harry Levine, Jon Gettman, and Loren Siegel—found the most dramatic racial disparities in Torrance and Pasadena, but bigger cities such as San Diego and Los Angeles also arrested blacks for marijuana possession at far higher rates than whites (six and seven times as high, respectively). As in their report released last June, which broke down data on California marijuana arrests by county, Levine et al. do not ascribe these disparties to racism:

Why have police in California been arresting young blacks at higher rates than young whites, and in much 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 cities and counties throughout California.

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. 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 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 ethnically- and 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."

But Levine et al. also argue that downgrading possession of an ounce or less of marijuana from a misdemeanor to an infraction, as legislation signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger a few weeks ago does (effective in January), will not eliminate the problem:

Both misdemeanors and infractions are results of routine policing practices which disproportionately focus on low-income black and Latino neighborhoods and their young people. Police departments have "productivity goals" (or quotas) for the summonses and arrests that patrol officers should make. Because the routine police stops are much more frequent in black and Latino neighborhoods, they unfairly produce more marijuana infractions and misdemeanors for young people in those neighborhoods. And this goes on despite the fact that U.S. government studies repeatedly find that young whites use marijuana at higher rates than young blacks and Latinos. None of this will change because of the new legislation.

If young people stopped by police are found to have a bit of marijuana in their pockets or possessions, and do not have sufficient identification papers, they can still be handcuffed and taken to the police station to check their fingerprints on a database. In the course of the police stop, the officers may add other charges including disorderly conduct or resisting arrest. In 2009 the New York Times reported that police in San Jose, California made many arrests in which the only charge was "resisting arrest." Latinos are 30% of San Jose's population, but Latinos were 60% of the people arrested when "resisting arrest" was the only charge.

Unless Proposition 19 passes, possessing a small amount of marijuana will remain a pretext for being hassled by the police, and blacks and Hispanics will continue to suffer disproportionately from the resulting inconvenience, expense, and indignity.

I discussed Levine's research on New York City pot arrests in a 2008 column.

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  1. (or quotas)

    Ding ding ding, we have a winner.

    I remember discussing the arrest disparities in college, and one theory was that higher income/”privilege” buys you more private space in which to conduct drug transactions and to consume said drugs. i.e. The chances of the cops busting you smoking weed on someone’s private rooftop deck are pretty low.

    1. Dagny, a plea:

      Please have your government look after Cousin Eddie. It appears that the life of a fine actor has spiraled so far out of control that he fled to Vancouver. (Or perhaps the shitter was full)

  2. I am Jack’s complete lack of surprise.

  3. Let’s not forget that prohibition has always had racist motivations.


  4. Thanks Jacob for giving me the opportunity to put in a plug for the new book of my FaceBook friend, Michelle Alexander.
    It backs up what this post is saying. I’ve long felt that if whites could just be made starkly aware of the racial disparities, “white guilt” would end the War on Drugs pronto. Unfortunately blacks themselves are too quiet about this issue, and their so-called leaders are not only no help, but help keep the Jim Crow status quo.

  5. Why don’t they contrast the number of arrests that have an alcohol connection to them along side? How many people, stopped by the police for having an open container (for instance), are subsequently arrested for resisting arrest or disorderly conduct? I’d love to see those numbers. I’d bet there is a huge discrepancy between them.

  6. Barack Obama doesn’t care about black people.

    1. Or white people for that matter.

      He only cares about the man that stares him back in the mirror.

      1. We’re trickier and harder to catch.

        1. We evolved white skin so we could safely sell drugs during the day.

    2. Obama is straight-up RACIST!

  7. This surprises exactly no one with anything resembling a brain, but the major problem is that the only parity it might bring about is by arresting even more whites so that they match the numbers of black arrests.

    To drug warriors their only failing is that of arresting too few people, not too many of one race/ethnicity or another.

    1. This surprises exactly no one with anything resembling a brain

      Well that explains why liberals/progressives are so puzzled.

      1. Because they need validation!

  8. I don’t care about your statistics. Prop 19, pass or fail, I will continue to prosecute illegal-substance abusers. We will protect African-American polling-place thugs, but fuck ’em if they’re carrying pot.

    1. Could Congress just defund the DoJ on principle? Holder has done everything he can to consolidate power in the most obviously corrupt department in our government. He selectively prosecutes laws. He goes along with death warrants against American citizens. He has no sense of equal protection, evidenced in his appeal of DADT and his stance on GITMO says due process is not that big a deal either.

      I mean, I know Team Red wants to use the DoJ in the WoT, but they need to defang this fuckface before he has all of us at each others throats.

      1. Golly heck, if he were a honky Republican, just imagine the names we could get away with calling him.

        1. Same names, less melanin. Troll fail.

  9. You know, you never hear about asian drug use or arrests. When are they gonna get the full weight of the jackboot on their neck?

    Yellow and blue make green. Think about that.

    1. We’re even trickier and harder-to-catch than the peckerwoods.

    2. Tunnels – it worked in Viet Nam, why mess with a good thing? Crafty bastards…

    3. Asians have the highest per capita income of any race in the US. Cops only bust poor people for pot

    4. That is interesting actually. I’ve lived in a community with Asian gangs and you really don’t know they are there. They seem to attempt to blend into the general population. They don’t write on walls, and they don’t stand out in front apartment complexes looking like thugs. Black and Hispanic gang members advertises their criminal lifestyle by the clothes they wear, their tattoos that specifically name the gang they are in (pretty much writing their rap sheet on their bodies).

      That could be one reason they get arrested more often. They are so reckless, and have much to learn about criminal activity from other ethnicities that come from countries with more oppressive authorities.

      Of course the pot arrests aren’t all gang members – it’s just an observation on the harder criminals.

      True or not, hopefully this study gains some traction among minority voters and helps prop 19.

      1. RACIAL PROFILING!!!!1!!1!1

        Of course, your observations are very…observant…

  10. Threadjack!

    LiLo avoids the slammer. I guess Lee Baca had his celebrity salad-tossing knee pads on at the courthouse today.

    1. Mr Obama was in town today.

  11. Street corner versus discretion.

    1. Are you implying that certain races are not smart enough to do their business off the street?

    2. Add that to the fact that there are more cops patrolling black neighborhoods because there’s more crime and you have a pretty fair explanation of whats going on. If they’re there and they see you, they’re going to bust you, black or white.

      1. Or the ‘higher crime rate’ comes from ‘more cops patrolling’? Correlation is not causation. . .

        1. In this case it does.

          More cops = more arrests.

          Look at this article, then try and say that with this particular phenomena, cops don’t patrol minority neighborhoods with the explicit intention of padding their arrest rates specifically for the cause of career advancement.

          1. More patrols = more arrests.
            More arrests = high crime area designation.
            High crime area = more patrols.

            You’ve gotta love those feedback loops.

  12. Obama has been in office for what? Seven hundred or so days, and this is what? the 1500 post on entirely different matters of demonstrable jackassery coming from this administration? Is there anything they have done right? Okay. Thinking about it. Maybe shelving the Mars mission and encouraging the private sector in active space oriented development. I be damned if I can think of anything else about them that doesn’t suck.

    1. Maybe shelving the Mars mission and encouraging the private sector in active space oriented development. I be damned if I can think of anything else about them that doesn’t suck.

      Even that sucks since they didn’t defund NASA. I think their mission statement now involves making friends of certain religions or something like that, but they’re still getting those tax dollars.

      1. Oh, and get ready for the Civilian Space Exploration Regulatory Act of 2010.

        1. That only happens when someone might make money off of space.

      2. I think their mission statement now involves making friends of certain religions or something like that

        That was one of the most bizarre WTF?!? stories out there this year.

        1. Sure was….for the 20 minutes or so that the MSM reported on it.

    2. Actually I think that Obama did it because he probably actually believes that private initiative and industry can’t pull it off. So he ended up doing a good thing while thinking he was sticking the shiv into another aspect of ‘American exeptionalism.

      1. Don’t discount his Muslim roots.

      2. Exactly. To understand Obama all you need to do is ask what policy will do the most damage to America.

        1. Not sure I believe this. I believe Obama is willing to hurt our country to enrich himself and people he likes (ie, community organizers, union bosses, leftists), or to promote himself (and by extension his party, TEAM BLUE in general, and left-wing politics) but I don’t think he would do it just for the sake of dragging down America in some way. After all, a big part of Kennedy’s legacy was the moon landing. Would Obama hurt his legacy just to be able to say, “Ha-ha, only government programs can put people in space”?

          And how out of touch would you have to be to think that betting against American entrepreneurs is a safe bet (I do realize this is the guy who thinks Obamacare is a good idea)?

  13. Why have police in California been arresting young blacks at higher rates than young whites, and in much greater numbers than their percentages of the population?

    Just more of those “progressive” policies that MNG thinks black people should be thankful for.

    Note Thomas’s opposing opinion in Raich.

  14. Threadjack:

    All around goodfella Robert Murphy has a brilliant idea that just might work:


    See Paul Krugman debate Robert Murphy on Keynesian versus Austrian business cycle theory! Moderated by Ezra Klein, or another moderator of mutual choosing. All proceeds (less The Point’s 5% fee) will be donated to the Fresh Food Program of FoodBankNYC.org, a non-profit dedicated to feeding the hungry of NYC.

    Austrians get labeled as being allergic to numbers. This goes back to Hayek’s earliest work where he was critical of the distortive practice of econometrics that was in vogue amongst continental economist in the first few decades of the twentieth century. Murphy has no aversion to stats and his articles examine them in great detail, so that charge doesn’t carry weight when applied to his work. Would love to see this happen.

    1. Personally, I thought Kayek’s earlier work in Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn was pretty solid. Everything from Fools Rush In on was shit.

      1. Agree on FDTD. Her acting talent was spectacular and spectacularly on display, but I thought her most magnificent and more mature achievement can be found in Fatal Conceit.

        1. I thought that was gonna be the name of the Obama post-Presidency biopic.

          1. Still could be. Selma’s work on that was suggestive and interpertative, even though near perfect in execution. A redux with this administration as its focus could put some real flesh on those bones.

    2. The chances of Krugman showing up for Murphy to shred him are basically nil. It’s not like he cares about feeding poor people, after all.


  15. I’ve never understood how someone could be charged with resisting arrest and nothing else. It makes no logical sense. You can’t resist arrest unless you are already being arrested for something. The courts should throw these cases out automatically.

    1. They usually do throw them out once they intimidate the arrested person so much they drop their civil rights suit.

    2. The courts should not just throw them out. The police officer should be charged with illegal restraint or false imprisonment. Only, I’d expect that the cops then habitually make up some other fake charge in addition to “resisting arrest”.

      Thus, I think the correct solution is to make resisting arrest perfectly legal. Any use of violence against police officers is covered by other laws.

      1. In NJ it’s illegal to resist an illegal arrest.

  16. Given that minorities have higher arrest/conviction rates for virtually every class of crime on the books, my response to this new revelation is a resounding: So what?

    If we repealed every law that minorities were convicted of breaking disproportionately, we’d have to repeal laws against murder, rape, robbery, assault, etc.

    Sorry, but this is just a plain silly argument.

    1. So what’s your “final solution” Himmler?

    2. The libertarian argument against prohibition does not stem from its unequal outcome with regard to minorities, but from its restrictions upon human liberty. The fact that minorities suffer disproportionately is a criticism on our legal system and the elected representitives who perpetuate and/or fail to fix its injustices.

    3. Slap the Retarded, is there any argument so simple that you won’t misunderstand it?

    4. Adopt the China model!

      Execute drug users, dealers, and promoters. We have over 100,000 lethal injection vans that not only kill people, but can transport their bodies for immediate organ extraction.

      Thank you, China! My lung and liver replacement surgery went well. Now to light up another legal cigarette and consume massive amounts of legal alcohol — not drugs of course!

  17. The obvious solution to this disparity is to build better government housing and superfund education.

    1. We have been building government housing for these minority offenders. They’re called prisons.

      1. Well that, and actual public housing which is used solely as a means to round “them” all up and have the opportunity to pay extra special attention to “them.”

  18. I think the usual focus on “racial disparity” in this situation just makes it easier for The Authorities to sweep the real problem under the rug. As if harassing innocent people to fish for drugs would be any more acceptable if only they caught more whites.

    1. How long have you been around here? Because if you think that any of us would make that argument, you need to read a bit more.

      1. Nah, I didn’t mean to imply that at all – I wasn’t talking about *around here*. Maybe I felt that the post didn’t make the case as strongly as I would have liked that the nature of the problem is one of individual liberty rather than anything to do with race. I’m sure I was just reading too much into it – it was a pretty brief post after all.

  19. What is a few million wasted lives when there are careers to be considered? Nice going Holder. Do your children know their safe, loving, warm homes has a mountain of corpses buried under the crawl space because their daddy is a monster?

  20. New LA Times poll shows 19 getting flattened by double digits.

    On the upside, I saw a young couple by the beach yesterday openly smoking pot as if had already passed.

    1. Gotta admire that kind of chutzpah. Or not. I’ve done that when I was younger and stupider, but eventually you wise up and realize how stupid it is. Years of getting kicked in the nuts by Balko and his illuminating pieces on the real nature of today’s law enforcement just drives the point home. I would love to walk down the street again and enjoy a nice fat joint, but we’re nowhere near that yet, and until then it’s just a monumentally stupid thing to do.

  21. Racial disparities are caused by what?

    You said it, the rent is too damn high!

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