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Report: Marijuana arrests show racial disparity

African-Americans are arrested nearly five times as often as whites for marijuana possession in Mecklenburg County, despite roughly equal usage of the drug by both groups nationally, according to data in a report released by the American Civil Liberties Union this week.

For every 100,000 people in the county, 520 African-Americans were arrested for marijuana possession in 2010, compared to 112 whites, the report said.

The report is based on data from FBI crime statistics and census data across the United States. It is the first nationally comprehensive report on marijuana arrests by race and county.

“The racial bias in the numbers is so staggering that it brings up a lot of questions about how the war on marijuana is being executed,” said Mike Meno of the ACLU of North Carolina.

Nationally, blacks are 3.7 times as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana possession.

In the state, blacks are 3.4 times as likely to be arrested, and in Mecklenburg County, 4.6 times as likely.

Fifty percent of people arrested for marijuana possession in North Carolina in 2010 were African-American, the ACLU said. Comparatively, only 22 percent of the state’s population is African-American.

The racial disproportion of arrests for marijuana possession suggests that the nation’s battle against the drug’s use is “predominately a war waged on communities of color,” Meno said.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department did not immediately respond to requests for data on the number of marijuana possession arrests per patrolling district.

But CMPD Staff Sgt. David Minnich said the racial disparity in the county’s marijuana arrests is in part due to officers’ attention to the city’s “fragile neighborhoods,” including Grier Heights and Belmont.

“We’re unwavering in our effort to put our resources where crime happens,” Minnich said. “It’s fair because we’re there to reduce crime and victimization. We’re there for the good of the people in the neighborhood.”

He said officers “go where the facts are.”

“If John Doe is selling crack cocaine on the street corner, we address that crime. His race is almost irrelevant,” Minnich said.

Larry James, the pastor of Grier Heights Presbyterian Church, said police presence in Grier Heights has been effective in quelling crime. But, he said, their presence to focus on other more serious crimes leads to higher arrests for minor offenses like marijuana possession.

“Just by virtue of the fact that they’re here, the number of arrests for (marijuana) increase,” James said.

Neighborhood focus

Mecklenburg County public defender Kevin Tully says that reasoning doesn’t justify the disproportionate number of blacks arrested for marijuana possession.

Equal tactics are not being used to enforce possession laws in every neighborhood, Tully said.

For example, he said, if officers searched college dorm rooms as frequently as they search cars and homes in his clients’ neighborhoods, he suspects they would find drugs at much higher rates.

“If marijuana and drug use leads to violent crime, then why on earth would you not enforce on college campuses the same way you do in neighborhoods? The answer is because it doesn’t,” Tully said.

The bias may be unconscious, Tully said, but enforcement tactics that lead to racially disproportionate arrests have the effect of “the criminalization of race or the racialization of crime,” which puts minorities into a negative cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy.

A wasteful war?

The ACLU’s report also shows the number and cost of the arrests.

Mecklenburg County made 20,983 marijuana possession arrests in 2010, according to the ACLU’s report. That’s the 10th highest of any county in the nation.

Marijuana possession arrests accounted for more than half of all drug-related arrests in the state in 2010.

The state spent almost $55 million to enforce marijuana possession laws in 2010. Nationally, states spent a combined $3.6 billion.

The ACLU says that money is wastefully spent, as it has not decreased the use or availability of the drug. The organization hopes its report will encourage public conversations about legalizing marijuana.

“In every possible way, the war on marijuana has failed,” Meno said. “It has led to aggressive enforcement that wastes millions of dollars, targets people of color and damages community relations with police.”

Police officers enforce the law as it is, Minnich said. He said marijuana is a gateway drug to other “harsher drugs” and its potency is more dangerous than it use to be.

“I think a lot of police officers could attest to alcohol and marijuana and all drugs being the source of a lot of crime and disorder,” Minnich said.

Ellis: 704-358-5298
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