Racism and Marijuana

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An investigative report out of Georgia claims that blacks are unequally targeted for prosecution in marijuana incidents. The claim, made by Atlanta’s Channel 2 News, is based on data collected on arrests and a comparison with census data on race. The story also included interviews with people arrested for marijuana possession.

According to the report, the worst offender was the Atlanta Police Department itself. In a city where the ratio of African Americans to white is about 60:40, the arrests were more than 90% of blacks and less than 10% whites. The supposition is that these numbers reflect race, rather than other variables.

Street Judgement

The mechanism cited to explain the discrepancy is police latitude, or “street judgment.” If an officer is suspicious at a traffic stop, he may request a second look and search, either from the driver directly, or after an alert by a drug dog. Officers have some leeway to either investigate further or let someone go. If officers are investigating black drivers (for traffic stops) more, they will end up detecting more marijuana possession in that group.

The accusation is one of bias, not fabricating charges. It assumes that the underlying use of marijuana is equivalent across racial lines and if whites were investigated at the same level as blacks, the numbers would match the demographics.

One other area where police bias would intrude is deciding whether to arrest or not based on the amount of marijuana found. If police charge one group for any amount (even a seed or a “speck”) and not the other, the numbers would be skewed as well.

The matter is of some concern for civil rights groups and, because Georgia has very harsh marijuana possession charges, the consequences can be dire for those charged. Even a minor possession arrest can also lead to serious consequences if a defendant fails to appear in court or is investigated further by other government agencies, such as Child Protective Services. The worry is that bias on this front leads to negative interactions with a whole segment of the criminal justice system.

Photo by John Nyboer

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