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In D.C. Superior Court on Tuesday, 36 people were scheduled to be arraigned for carrying marijuana. The alleged offenders were collared by police for marijuana possession in the latter half of July and the beginning of August, and faced up to six months in prison time and up to $1,000 in fines. Court records indicate prosecutors are going ahead with 18 of the cases.
Eleven of the citations were given in predominantly black police districts east of the Anacostia River. Only one was issued in the Second Police District, which contains some of D.C.’s whitest neighborhoods. That snapshot of the District’s criminal justice landscape would seem to reflect past statistics, which say black residents are eight times more likely to be arrested for sparking a blunt than their white counterparts.
That’s despite the fact that the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use & Health says whites and blacks use marijuana at near equal rates: 9.6 percent of blacks 12 and older use pot, and 8.8 percent of whites.
One theory as to why black residents are apprehended on pot charges more often involves how the two populations both smoke and acquire their weed. Whites tend to light up and deal inside their homes, and blacks on the street, goes the thinking.
Court records for some of those arrested east of the river back that belief up. They describe vice officers spotting suspects engaging in open-air blazing or buying from street corner dealers. One subject “was walking down the street smoking a brown cigar” when cops spotted him. The recklessness involved would seem to disqualify disparate rates of marijuana arrests in the city as a civil rights issue: Black smokers are choosing to be flagrant about their pot use and so attracting the attention of cops who have no choice but to grab them.
But even if assumptions about smoking and dealing habits are solid, that doesn’t mean there’s no problem with the way marijuana laws are currently being enforced in black and white neighborhoods. Taking my own experience as an African American who grew up poor into account, I remember some family and friends who puffed outside—whether that involved a pack of Kools or a joint meticulously sculpted from Top rolling papers—out of respect for others in their household, particularly where there was more than one generation (and therefore more than one set of moral values) under one roof. Dealing inside the house would have been all the more inappropriate. Although that’s certainly not the situation for every black person who tokes up or does a hand-off in Ward 7 or Ward 8, the idea is that you can’t just assume they’re being belligerent, and therefore asking for repercussions.
Police do seem to be obligated to arrest you once they catch a sight of a spliff, as a matter of policy in the District. Police Chief Cathy Lanier says her department isn’t pushing marijuana arrests at this time, but if ”we encounter someone in possession of marijuana, we are obligated to make an arrest.”
Still, there are plenty of crimes, like jaywalking (which gets sporadic enforcement) that cops regularly ignore, despite the law. When the crime is so minor and ubiquitous that making a big deal about it would do more harm than good, officers typically walk on.
The federal survey on drug stats says that marijuana use—-which has been approved for medical purposes in the District—-may be a misdemeanor, but it’s certainly become ubiquitous. An “estimated 104 million Americans aged 12 or older have tried marijuana at least once in their lifetimes.” I doubt law enforcement is interested in arresting all those people, so why swoop into black D.C.?
When black people bear the brunt of marijuana arrests, the prime suspect ends up being the country’s teetering but still functional mechanism of racial oppression. The fix is obvious: Legalize marijuana, and the problem disappears. Or at least this manifestation of it does.
Photo by futureatlas.com via Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0