The District has one of the highest arrest rates for marijuana possession in the nation, with blacks being arrested eight times as often for the offense in the city as whites, according to a study released Tuesday by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Compared to the 50 states, the District ranked first in the nation for marijuana possession arrests with 846 per 100,000 residents in 2010. Stacked against counties, the District drops a few notches to seventh — falling in behind an odd mix of jurisdictions, including Maryland’s Worcester County, where hordes of tourists descend to the beaches of Ocean City every summer; central Missouri’s Cole County, home to the state’s capital; and other urban centers like the Bronx, N.Y., and Baltimore.
The ACLU report compared marijuana possession arrest data compiled by the FBI from 2001 to 2010, analyzing racial disparities among the arrest rates that exist across the country as well as the associated costs of policing, prosecution and incarceration. It recommends legalizing marijuana in order to completely eliminate the racial disparities and also concludes that law-enforcement agencies should eliminate policies thatcreate incentive for arrests for minor offenses.
In 2010, D.C. law enforcement agencies made 5,115 arrests for marijuana possession — or about 14 per day — putting the District in the top 20 when measured against counties with the most total arrests. The report noted that nearly 91 percent of the people arrested were black.
“I think if there was another program that discriminated against people 8-to-1, black to white, there would be tremendous pressure to end that program,” said D.C. lawyer Paul Zukerberg, who ran for a D.C. Council seat this year on the platform of decriminalizing marijuana. “When we see how we compare to other states and that we are at the bottom or near the bottom it gives greater impetus to end this injustice.”
Across the nation, blacks were almost four times more likely than whites to be arrested in 2010 for marijuana possession, even though the ACLU noted that similar percentages — 14 percent of blacks and 12 percent of whites — had reported using the drug within the prior year, according to the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health survey.
Amid the backdrop of a rapidly shifting legal view of marijuana use — 17 states have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, with Colorado and Washington outright legalizing the drug and even more states legalizing use of medical marijuana — the disproportionate and heavy-handed enforcement in the District makes little sense, Marijuana Policy Project spokesman Mason Tvert said.
“There are enforcement strategies that contribute to greater scrutiny of geographic areas that have a greater population of African-Americans or Latinos,” said Mr. Tvert, citing the “broken windows” theory of law enforcement that predicts small acts of deviance if left unchecked will escalate into serious crime. “This stands out more because of how ludicrous the crime is in this situation. Not to mention the penalties that accompany it.”
The notion of decriminalizing marijuana possession, which is still illegal under federal law, has received increasing attention this year in the District. In addition to Mr. Zukerberg’s council run, two sitting council members — including Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat who is running for mayor — have announced plans to introduce a marijuana decriminalization bill this summer.
“We are enforcing the laws in a racially bias manner and we are saddling mostly young black men and also young black women with criminal records,” Mr. Zukerberg said. “The enforcement of the law has gotten to be more of a problem than the substance itself.”