The big picture
The American Civil Liberties Union yesterday released a scathing report detailing rampant racial discrimination evident in the enforcement of marijuana laws. Judging from the data, black and white Americans are experiencing the broader war on drugs in vastly disparate ways.
The ACLU reported that nationally, blacks who were arrested for marijuana possession were 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites were in 2010, even though the two groups used the drug at similar rates. This inequality had only intensified over the past decade, according to the data.
The data was drawn from police records across the nation – the most comprehensive review of marijuana arrests (by race and by county) ever conducted. Additionally, a great deal of the data was independently reviewed by researchers at Stanford University.
The lead author of the ACLU’s report, Ezekiel Edwards, stated, “We found that in virtually every county in the country, police have wasted taxpayer money enforcing marijuana laws in a racially biased manner.” According to the researchers, the increasing racial disparity in marijuana arrests were even more striking because of the uniformity – even across counties with small or large minority populations.
Making things worse…
Exacerbating circumstances, the public’s attitudes toward marijuana usage have only softened over the same span of time.
First of all – for the first time in four decades – a majority of Americans now favor legalizing the use of marijuana. In March the Pew Center conducted a national survey and found that 52% of Americans say that the use of marijuana should be made legal; 45% said that it should not.
Furthermore, eighteen states now permit medical usage (plus DC); thirteen of those eighteen states legalized the plant over the past ten years. In the past year alone, two states have gone so far as to decriminalized the plant altogether.
Marijuana arrests comprise a surprising portion of all arrests in the nation’s failed war on drugs; about half of all drug arrests in America during 2011 were on marijuana-related charges; the ratio was nearly the same in 2010.
The cost of the war on drugs has increased steadily over the past decade, as well. States spent an estimated $3.6 billion in 2010 enforcing marijuana possession laws alone – representing a 30% increase from ten years prior. Over the same span, arrests for most other types of crime decreased at a regular pace.
Six different states had rates of disparity that were at least five times the rate for whites. These “worst of the worst” states were:
Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa.
You might notice a pattern there – four of the six most discriminatory states were found in the Midwest. And the remaining two “worst-of-the-worst” bordered on the Midwest. Put another way, two-thirds of the most racially-discriminatory states in the nation (in terms of marijuana arrests only) are located in the American Midwest.
The rest of the data was not exactly redeeming for the region. There were fourteen other states where the rates were above the national average, but did not exceed a rate of five blacks arrested for every white. Five of those fourteen moderately-biased states were situated in the Midwest (only one bordering state earned the dishonorable status this round). This means that 35.7% of the 2nd tier violators were located in the Midwest.
Adding it up
Altogether, nine of the twenty states where the rates of discrimination were above the national average are in the region. Let me reframe that statement as well:
Very nearly half of the states (45%) that discriminated the most were Midwestern states. If you include the three bordering states of Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and New York, that rate rises to 60%.
Breaking it back down
Looking closer, we see that blacks in Iowa, Minnesota, and Illinois were around eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana usage. Iowa had the highest rate in the nation, where 8.36 blacks were arrested for every white.
DC had the second highest rate in the nation, followed by Minnesota, Illinois, and Wisconsin, and then Kentucky and Pennsylvania. The Midwestern states in the 2nd tier of violators were Ohio, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas.
While this sobering report shines a light on a problem that plagues all fifty states, it would appear that the Midwest is a center of inequity in America. What we do with that knowledge remains to be seen.
You can find the full ACLU report here.
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