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The Scandal of Racist Marijuana Arrests—and What To Do About It | The Nation

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The Scandal of Racist Marijuana Arrests—and What To Do About It

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(Reuters/John Gress/Files)

Most important, police department supervisors at all levels find that marijuana possession arrests are very useful. They are proof of productivity to their superiors; some supervisors also receive overtime pay for the extra work by officers under their command. Making many searches and arrests for minor offenses is also excellent training for rookie police. If a new officer screws up the paperwork, it doesn’t matter because, as one sergeant explained, “it’s just a pot arrest.” And if a crisis or emergency comes up, police commanders can temporarily reassign officers making arrests for marijuana without hindering an ongoing investigation. This “reserve army” of police focusing on petty offenses keeps officers busy, provides records of their whereabouts and productivity, and gives commanders staffing flexibility. 

Sources for the information in this article can be found at thenation.com/marijuana and at the site of the Marijuana Arrest Research Project, which is run by author Harry Levine and civil liberties attorney Loren Siegel.

Marijuana arrests also enable police department managers to obtain fingerprints, photographs and other data on young people who would not otherwise end up in their databases. There is nothing else the police can do that gets so many new people into their system as the broad net of marijuana possession arrests.

Police officials and managers have become so dependent on marijuana arrests that one could reasonably conclude that their departments are addicted to them. And they don’t want to give up their habit. In recent years, police agencies, prosecutors’ offices, and their influential network of political and lobbying organizations have emerged as the chief opponents of drug-law reform. It is not the religious right, or anti-drug groups, or even the drug treatment industry that lobbies and campaigns against marijuana ballot initiatives and legislative drug-law reforms. Rather, law enforcement organizations are leading the charge as well as providing the troops to defend the drug war.

* * *

The ACLU’s report emphatically calls for an end to marijuana possession arrests, noting that the only way to accomplish this is by legalizing the possession and use of marijuana, and ultimately by regulating its production and sale. 

Although the decriminalization of marijuana possession has been implemented in countries with a national police system, in the United States this has turned out to be a false solution. When possession becomes a “noncriminal” offense but still an illegal one, local law enforcement agencies often continue many of the same practices as before—but now without public defenders to represent the young people charged with a “drug offense,” and without public data to document what police, prosecutors and courts are doing. Some police departments simply ignore the decriminalization laws, as the NYPD has done for over fifteen years.

However, as Colorado and Washington have proved in just the last year, there is a very good alternative: even without instituting commercial sale, the legalization of marijuana can stop most of these possession arrests. 

The larger goal of ending punitive and biased drug arrests requires seismic changes in law enforcement: it will mean creating policing for a post–drug war America. One reform that makes others possible is guaranteeing public access to much more aggregate criminal justice data, both historical and current. With it, researchers and journalists can reveal routine police, prosecutor and court practices, as some of us have been doing for marijuana arrests and stop-and-frisks.

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One way of conceptualizing these changes is to view them as bringing the civil rights movement to policing policies. In the last two decades, police department staff have become increasingly racially integrated. But in many cities and counties, the day-to-day practices of police and sheriffs’ departments are still determined by the race, class and ethnicity of a neighborhood’s residents. Despite the many successes of the civil rights movement, we continue to live within two worlds of policing, separate and unequal: one for middle-class and wealthier people, the other for poorer Americans and, especially, people of color.

It is time for America to fully embrace equal policing for all. Unfortunately, like all humane, just and progressive change, this will not be granted. It must be won.

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Also In This Issue

Katrina vanden Heuvel: “Why Its Always Been Time to Legalize Marijuana

Mike Riggs: “Obama’s War on Pot

Carl L. Hart: “Pot Reform’s Race Problem

Martin A. Lee: “Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom: The Populist Politics of Cannabis Reform

Martin A. Lee: “The Marijuana Miracle: Why a Single Compound in Cannabis May Revolutionize Modern Medicine

Kristen Gwynne: “Can Medical Marijuana Survive in Washington State?

Atossa Araxia Abrahamian: “Baking Bad: A Potted History of High Times

Various Contributors: “The Drug War Touched My Life: Why I’m Fighting Back

And only online…

J. Hoberman: “The Cineaste’s Guide to Watching Movies While Stoned

Harmon Leon: “Pot Block! Trapped in the Marijuana Rescheduling Maze

Seth Zuckerman: “Is Pot-Growing Bad for the Environment?

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