Racial Disparities in Virginia Marijuana Arrests

Marijuana arrests in Virginia have been increasing over the last decade, and the racial disparity in marijuana possession arrest rates has been getting worse every year.

In 2003, there were 13,052 marijuana possession arrests in the state. This figure rose year-to-year to 22,948 in 2014, an increase of 76 percent. In 2002, the arrest rate for whites was 144 per 100,000 population and for blacks it was 344. In 2013, however, the arrest rate for whites had increased to 191, but for blacks it increased to 636 per 100,000.

These and other findings about marijuana possession arrests in Virginia are the subject of my most recent report released by the Drug Policy Alliance.

Blacks account for 20 percent of Virginia’s population, but make up nearly half (47 percent) of all marijuana possession arrests in the state. Worse, in recent years, arrests of blacks account for most of the annual increase in marijuana possession arrests.  Blacks accounted for 54 percent of the increase in arrests in 2011, 67 percent of the increase in 2012, and 105 percent of the increase in 2013 (because arrests of whites actually decreased that year).

Why do police in Virginia arrest more and more blacks every year for marijuana possession?

This is a really interesting question.

It’s as if the more they hear about marijuana law reform in other states, the greater effort they make to remind people that reform is not happening in Virginia. But this too invites more questions. First, recognition of the racial disparity common to marijuana possession arrests was a pivotal factor in the decriminalization of marijuana in Maryland and Washington, DC. Second, Virginia has very reasonable marijuana laws regarding possession.

In Virginia, marijuana possession carries a penalty of 0 – 30 days in jail and up to a $500 fine for a first offense. Often, the sentence is probation.

For states that have not legalized or decriminalized marijuana, this is one of the shortest jail sentences provided for a possession offense. Indeed, when adopted by the state in 1979, the legislature recognized that sending people to jail for marijuana possession did little to deter marijuana use and that the money the state spent on these offenders was better spent on more important and pressing problems.

In fact, the legislative history of the reform bill quoted a popular national columnist who described arresting people for marijuana as “just plain stupid.”

The report looks at 50 jurisdictions in Virginia. They account for 95 percent of the state’s marijuana possession arrests. The same trends are evident throughout the state. Blacks are arrested at a higher rate than whites, and black arrests are increasing at a higher rate than white arrests.

This may have something to do with where police are on patrol. It may have something to do with racial profiling. It may have something to do with attempts to establish or reinforce policy authority in various communities. Or it could just be a way for police to express their opposition to marijuana law reform, and for various reasons, it is easier for them to arrest blacks than whites. There are some serious issues here that deserve to be addressed.

The most important issue, though, is that marijuana arrests of blacks, whites and everyone else ought to end.

Virginia should be commended for not subjecting people arrested for marijuana to harsh and severe penalties, but whatever praise they may deserve on that front pales against the reality that enforcing those laws produces such discriminatory results. It also pales against modern times, as 54 percent of Virginians support marijuana’s legalization.

This report on these troubling trends in Virginia is a stark reminder that prohibition remains popular with law enforcement, not just in Virginia, but also across the nation. Police like to arrest people for pot, and they are not going to stop until their legal authority to do so is cut off. One way to build further support for legalization is to publicize the impacts of these arrests, especially with respect to the racial disparity in marijuana possession arrests.

There is no good reason why blacks are more likely to be arrested for marijuana use than whites.

It’s wrong, its discriminatory and it really motivates the black community to support marijuana law reform. That last impact is not exactly what the police had in mind.

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