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U.S. Opinions: New York

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End obvious racial profiling on pot arrests

From an editorial in Sunday’s New York Times:

Researchers have long known that African-Americans are more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, even though studies have repeatedly shown that the two groups use the drug at similar rates.

New federal data now show that the problem of racially biased arrests is far more extensive than was previously known – and is getting worse. The costly, ill-advised “war on marijuana” might fairly be described as a tool of racial oppression.

The study, based on law enforcement data from 50 states and the District of Columbia, is the most detailed of its kind so far. Marijuana arrests have risen sharply over the last two decades and now make up about half of all drug arrests in the United States. There were nearly 900,000 marijuana arrests in 2010 – 300,000 more than for all violent crimes combined.

Nationally, African-Americans are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as whites. And in some counties around the country, blacks are 10, 15 or even 30 times as likely to be arrested.

This nationwide pattern is evident in all kinds of communities – urban and rural, wealthy and low-income, in places where the African-American populations are large and in places where they are small.

As the report notes, police officers who are targeting black citizens and black neighborhoods are turning “a comparatively blind eye to the same conduct occurring at the same rates in many white communities.”

The mindless push to make low-level possession arrests distracts the police from serious crime, wastes billions of dollars and alienates minority citizens from the law. It also brings disastrous consequences for young people, as convictions can lead to fines, jail time and temporary loss of federal student financial aid – not to mention criminal records that make it difficult for them to find housing or work. The report urges the states to license and regulate marijuana, legalizing it for people 21 or older.

Regardless of laws in individual states, federal officials and local police departments need to abandon policies that evaluate officers based on numerical arrest goals, which encourage petty arrests, along with illegal stops that violate the Fourth Amendment.

Beyond that, law enforcement agencies need to put an end to what is obviously a widespread practice of racial profiling.

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