A new report from the ACLU reveals troubling racial biases and spending in the ‘war on marijuana’.


Weed. Ganja. Yerba Buena. Pot. President Barack Obama admits to having smoked it in his younger days like President Bill Clinton before him. While we have long since known that those of us who look like the current POTUS are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana-related offenses than our White counterparts, a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union reveals just how devastating those disparities can be.

The War on Marijuana in Black and White: Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests is the first comprehensive study of marijuana possession and arrest rates by race for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Marijuana arrests now account for over half of all drug arrests in the United States, with marijuana possession arrests alone making up nearly half (46%) of all drug arrests. In 2010, there was one marijuana arrest every 37 seconds, and states spent over $3.6 billion enforcing marijuana possession laws that year alone.

The waste of taxpayers’ dollars on policing a drug that a majority of Americans support legalizing is bad enough, but the racial disparities are stark and should sound the alarm against the marijuana-to-prison pipeline. In spite of evidence that finds that Whites are equally or more likely to take drugs than Blacks, we are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than Whites. These arrests exist in all regions of the country, in counties large and small, urban and rural, wealthy and poor and with large and small Black populations.

Rosa Clemente, with Ebony Magazine, spoke with the report’s lead author, Ezekiel Edwards, Director of the Criminal Law Reform Project with the ACLU.


EBONY: Why did the ACLU decide to do this report?

Ezekiel Edwards: We were concerned about the failed War on Drugs and the toll that it has taken on people in this country, particularly people of color. We knew that marijuana plays a significant role in that war. We also knew from the New York state data that there were a lot of marijuana arrests in New York and that they were disproportionately 86%, people of color, so we were curious to see if that was happening elsewhere in the country and what we found to our dismay is that this was happening all over the United States. We found that Blacks are 4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites nationwide, despite the fact that Black and Whites use marijuana at almost the same rates. In virtually every county in America whether the Black population is 2% or 60%, whether the median income was 100k or 20k, everywhere we looked, Blacks are more likely to be arrested and that was startling to us.


EBONY: You say the War on Marijuana is about “over-policing.” Can you explain?

EE: Between 2001 and 2010, there were over 8 million marijuana arrests in the United States. Nine out of 10 of these arrests are for marijuana possession and this policy is being racially enforced. Marijuana arrests have serious consequences. There are over 20,000 people who are serving state prison for marijuana possession. When one is stopped and frisked, first and foremost, it is a humiliating, intrusive experience. What happens when you get a marijuana arrest and conviction? First, people do spend time in jail for marijuana possession which is disruptive. Conviction can cause loss of employment, difficulty in getting future employment, a loss of student financial aid, losing housing and housing eligibility, losing parental rights, and can have consequences for immigrants and permanent residents [alike.]

[Following] a marijuana conviction, if you are ever picked up for something else, you can now be considered a recidivist and it makes future punishment significantly worse. There are people serving life without parole when the triggering offense was a non-violent marijuana conviction.


EBONY: Can you tell us which states and or counties have the highest racial disparities in marijuana arrests?

EE: In Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and Washington, D.C. Blacks are 8 times more likely to be arrested. Kentucky and Wisconsin: 6 times more likely, Pennsylvania: 5 times more likely. If you then look at certain significant counties, like Brooklyn, NY and Grand Rapids, MI, it’s 9 times more likely, and DeKalb County in GA, 7 times more likely. So, you see, these rates are high. We even found counties like Van Zandt, TX where Blacks were 34 times more likely to be arrested.


EBONY: I was also shocked to discover the amount of money that states are spending enforcing marijuana possession—New York State spends 678 million dollars, California spends 490 million dollars a year?

EE: In 2010 alone, states spent a total of over 3.6 billion dollars enforcing marijuana laws. That’s what they spend policing it, handling judicial costs and then correction/jail costs.

EBONY: What do you think are two of the most important recommendations from the report?

EE: The ACLU recommends that marijuana be legalized for persons 21 and older through a system of taxation, licensing, and regulation. Legalization is the smartest and surest way to end targeted enforcement of marijuana laws in communities of color, and, moreover, would eliminate the costs of such enforcement while generating revenue for cash-strapped states. If legalization is not possible, the ACLU recommends depenalizing marijuana use and possession for persons 21 or older by removing all attendant civil and criminal penalties. We are also recommending that until legalization or depenalization is achieved, law enforcement agencies and district attorney offices should deprioritize enforcement of marijuana possession laws. In addition, police should end racial profiling and unconstitutional stop, frisk, and search practices, and no longer measure success and productivity by the number of arrests they make.


EBONY: Is there anything else you want our audience to understand about the report and marijuana policing?

EE: The real harm of these number of arrests, over 8 million in a decade…is that they are so racially biased that it makes everything more difficult for that person. Think about it, for conduct that is legal in 15 states…Black people are getting arrested and convicted—often without a lawyer—and this is creating an underclass that is pinned down by the criminal justice system for the same thing that certain people in some states can do without any fear of enforcement either because it’s legal or the cops are not paying attention.



In the last decade, 15 states have passed laws decriminalizing marijuana. But even with state decriminalization, arrests are still made. For some the conduct is treated like a minor traffic violation but for African-Americans the punishment is always much harsher and often has long term consequences. In a time when states are struggling just to keep schools open, when food stamp benefits are sliced and diced, and we when austerity measures are impacting millions and millions of lives, spending 3.6 billion dollars or more a year for marijuana policing is unconscionable. It is high time that law enforcement stop arresting and ruining people’s lives for a plant that has been proven to be less dangerous to our bodies and communities than cigarettes, alcohol or even fast food.


This article was written for Ebony Magazine.