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Pot Matters: Blacks Still Arrested at Extreme Levels in Massachusetts

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Marijuana decriminalization in 2008 dramatically reduced marijuana possession arrests in Massachusetts, yet racial disparities persist in the state’s remaining marijuana arrests.

This disturbing trend is documented in new research I have conducted and released Thursday, Oct. 6, in a report co-written by Emily Whitfield and Matt Allen and published by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts: The War on Marijuana in Black and White: A Massachusetts Update.

ACLU Racial Justice Director Rahsaan Hall explains that: “Racial disparities are a disturbing feature of our current marijuana policy.  Black people are arrested for marijuana possession at 10 times the rate of white people in some counties—despite the fact Black people and white people use marijuana at the same rate.  Taxing and regulating marijuana is an important step towards reducing the harm that current policies cause to people of color, particularly Black people, and it will generate hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue that can be reinvested in our communities.”

The report has three primary findings:

  • First, the elimination of criminal penalties for possession of one ounce or less has had little impact on marijuana use in the state.
  • Second, black people continue to be arrested at higher rates for marijuana offenses than white people, despite the fact that white people use and sell at similar rates.
  • Third, disparities in the enforcement of marijuana laws in Massachusetts remain in effect with respect to age and region under decriminalization.

African Americans are only 8 percent of the population of Massachusetts, but make up 24 percent of marijuana possession arrests and 41 percent of sales arrests.

Even while total marijuana arrests fell from 10,260 in 2008 to 2,748 the following year and to 1,647 in 2014 five years after decriminalization, the marijuana possession arrest rate for black people was 3.3 times higher than for white people, demonstrating that racial disparity increased after decriminalization.

In 2014 the arrest rate for sales for African Americans was 7.1 times higher than the arrest rate for white people. Sales arrests now account for 63 percent of marijuana arrests in Massachusetts, at about 1,500 per year from 2006 to 2012 before falling slightly to 1,031 in 2014.

Young people (18 to 24) represent 14 percent of the adult population but account for 63 percent of those arrested for marijuana possession offenses. This group represents 32.9 percent of marijuana users, meaning that young people are arrested at a rate twice the rest of the population for the same supposed crimes.

In certain counties, the disparity in arrest rates for black people and white people more than doubled from before decriminalization (2006) and after (2014). In Bristol County, the disparity in possession arrest rates increased from 5.0 to 11.0 (meaning that the black arrest rate for possession was five times greater than for whites in 2006 and eleven times greater in 2014.) In Franklin County, the disparity in possession arrest rates increased from 6.9 to 17.1. In Norfolk County, the disparity in sales arrest rates increased from 3.4 to 9.4.

A key section of the report explains that:

“Black people continue to be disproportionately affected by marijuana laws for many reasons. The most apparent is that arrests of any kind are a function of police activity, such as enforcement priorities and concentration of resources. For instance, while Black people make up only 24% of the population of Boston, they make up 63% of stop-and-frisk encounters. This racial disparity remains even after other factors, such as neighborhood crime rates and gang membership or criminal history of residents, are controlled for. Critics of this approach to policing, including the ACLU of Massachusetts, point out that it increases tensions and distrust between communities and police while failing to increase public safety. In over 200,000 stop and frisks in Boston from 2007-2010, only 2.5% involved the seizure of contraband or weapons. Low-level marijuana arrests of Black people are a consistent result of this biased policing.”

The report was released at a joint press conference by the ACLU of Massachusetts and the Yes on 4 Campaign. Question 4 is a ballot initiative before the voters of Massachusetts this fall which will remove all penalties for personal possession of up to one ounce of marijuana and establish a legal system where adults may purchase it. As argued in this new report:

“Taxing and regulating marijuana will not ‘solve’ the problem of racially biased policing or economic structure in Massachusetts, nor will it cause the societal damage proposed by opponents, including increased youth use, crime and more dangerous communities. However, adopting a new regulatory system will remove a significant obstacle to racial equality, and at the same time provide the state with the much-needed tax revenue to improve the lives of all residents.”

Previously in Pot Matters: When Sin City Made Pot a Felony

Read all of Jon Gettman’s columns right here.

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