Last month, during a tirade about The Denver Post's decision to hire a marijuana editor, Bill O'Reilly was puzzled by the idea that wine intoxicates people and treated the notion that a newspaper would print bar reviews or cocktail recipes as self-evidently absurd. Yesterday, in another exchange with Fox News commentators Juan Williams and Mary Katharine Ham, O'Reilly revealed that he does not know people get arrested for marijuana possession:
O'Reilly: Primarily, the left embraces the drug culture to some extent….What is it about the drug culture…that's so compelling for some of them?
Williams: Well, I don't think it's compelling, but I think that if you start to arrest their children and give them records and put barriers in front of their futures and their careers, I think people say, "Wait a second." As you said in the previous segment, this is soft drug use. Why are you arresting and giving this kid a record, especially minority kids. Disproportionately, they're the ones who get arrested.
O'Reilly: Only dealers, Juan. There's no mass arrests of users.
Williams: No, no, no, Bill.
Ham: No, users are arrested.
O'Reilly: No, they get a ticket, Juan.
Williams: I don't think that's right, Bill.
O'Reilly: No, it is right.
Williams: And I think lots of people fear for their children. By the way, you should know, it's not just liberals—
O'Reilly: So by your thinking, then, people fear for their children so they want to make drugs more available. Let's legalize them so they don't get a rap sheet.
Williams: No, no, no, I didn't say that. I didn't say more available. I said, listen, the kid gets out there, the kid's involved in soft drugs, by your own definition, gets arrested. Suddenly he's got a record, all sorts of things that would inhibit his or her progress in life.
O'Reilly: It's almost impossible. The records are expunged if they are juveniles. You know what the game is here. This is not a crime that is actively pursued by district attorneys. All right. I'm just going to discount that argument, Juan.
According to the the FBI, police in the United States made about 750,000 marijuana arrests in 2012, the vast majority (87 percent) for simple possession. That is down from a peak of more than 858,000 pot busts in 2009. From 1996 through 2012, there were more than 12 million marijuana arrests, accounting for 44 percent of all drug arrests during that period. More than 11 million of the pot busts involved simple possession. Pace O'Reilly, those are arrests, not tickets.
Even when police are supposed to issue a citation for possession of small amounts, they may find an excuse for an arrest. In New York City, where O'Reilly works, police managed to make more than 600,000 such arrests from 1996 through 2012, a period when pot busts skyrocketed even though the state legislature decriminalized marijuana possession in 1977. Often marijuana is revealed during a stop-and-frisk encounter, whereupon the cop charges the target with "public display," which is a misdemeanor, as opposed to mere possession, which is a violation.
As Williams pointed out, the people busted for marijuana possession are disproportionately black and Hispanic, even though survey data show whites are just as likely to smoke pot. In New York City, blacks and Hispanics together account for 87 percent of marijuana arrests, and there are similar disparities in other jurisdictions. On average, according to a 2013 ACLU report, blacks are about four times as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana possession.
In Bill O'Reilly's world, none of this is happening, which I suppose helps explain how he can so blithely continue to support marijuana prohibition.