Marijuana criminality is at the center of a system of racist social control-marijuana



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Marijuana criminality is at the center of a system of racist social control—marijuana fuels the war on drugs and is accelerating as the largest statistical cause of arrests and incarceration relative to all other crimes


Taylor 13

[2013, James Taylor is an associate professor and Chair of the Department of Politics at the University of San Francisco, “Chapter 7: Building Minority Community Power Through Legalization” Something’s in the Air: Race, Crime, and the Legalization of Marijuana” edited by, Katherine Tate, James Lance Taylor and Mark Q. Sawyer]


Legalization, or at least decriminalization, of personal-use marijuana is a vital alternative to draconian laws drawn up in the War on Drugs regime of the past three decades. It is well established that concern and paranoia over petty “crack” cocaine arrests for sales, possession, and use drove the mass warehousing of the state of California’s prisons and jails populations to become the largest in the United States (Lusane 1991; Weatherspoon 1998; Reinarman and Levine 1997; Provine 2007). What is less appreciated in light of the fierce reaction to the emergence of crack cocaine in the middle 1980s is that marijuana use and related arrests foregrounded the official war on drugs announced by the Reagan administration in October of 1982 (Alexander 2010, 49). The Nixon administration ran on a platform of law and order social control of African Americans in 1968; he implemented his war on drugs. Policing petty drugs would be the means to that end. White House Chief of Staff H. R. Halderman once noted,“(President NixonJ emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the Blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to” (Baum 1996, 13).The War on Drugs system’s primary target was what political operatives and bureaucratic appointees collapsed into the procrustean category, “the young the poor the black” (Baum 1996, 21). Between the Nixon and Reagan administrations’ focus on street-level drug trafficking, sales, possession, and use, marijuana remained at the center.¶ For instance, the pro-legalization policy group, National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), reports that marijuana arrests per hour began a steady increase between 1965 and 1968. Marijuana-related arrests per hour during this period went from a low of two arrests per hour, resulting in roughly 90,000 annual arrests in the country, to more than doubling at 200,000 per year by 1971. By 1973, annual arrests reached 400,000 per year and remained roughly at this level until the early to middle 1980s, when the Reagan administration declared a “war on drugs.” Where marijuana arrests (at about 300,000 per year) took a sharp, temporary decline as the “crack epidemic” became the center of attention, beginning in 1992, marijuana arrests, at 33 per hour, increased every year over the next decade, peaking at 700,000 per year in 2000. By 2007, the number of arrests per year rose to more than 850,000 per year, or 99.6 per hour. Noting that marijuana possession constituted nearly 8 of 10 drug-related arrests in the 1990s, Michelle Alexander insists that this period of “unprecedented punitiveness” resulted “in prison sentences (rather than dismissal, community service, or probation)” to the degree “in two short decades, between 1980 and 2000, the number of people incarcerated in our nation’s prisons and jails soared from roughly 300,000 to more than 2 million. By the end of 2007, more than 7 million Americans—or one in every 31 adults—were behind bars, on probation, or parole” (2010, 59). Thus, marijuana anteceded crack—not in terms of its pharmacological potency or even in fostering the violent, nihilistic crisis associated with crack—but more in how state, local, and national law enforcement has targeted Black and Latino communities for scapegoating and punishment. There is widespread consensus in reported government statistics, advocacy studies, and policy think tanks that African Americans bear the brunt of law-and- order management of marijuana laws in the United States. How national and local media chose to present the use and abuse of both drugs in racial terms that were woefully different from the facts of use, sales, and possession is confirmed in academic and critical legal studies literature. One study focusing on marijuana initiants found that “among Blacks, the annual incidence rate (per 1,000 potential new users) increased from 8.0 in 1966 to 16.7 in 1968, reached a peak at about the same time as Whites (19.4 in 1976), then remained high throughout the late 1970s. Following the low rates in the 1980s, rates among Blacks rose again in the early 1990s, reached a peak in 1997 and 1998 (19.2 and 19.1, respectively), then dropped to 14.0 in 1999. Similar to the general pattern for Whites and Blacks, Hispanics’ annual incidence rate rose during late 1970s and 1990s, with a peak in 1998 (17.8)” (“Initiation of Marijuana Use” 2008). During the late 1990s, habitual street-level marijuana use was buttressed in pop culture by West Coast hip-hop rap, especially as associated with rapper Calvin “Snoop Dogg” Broadus. Broadus became so associated with illegal marijuana use and culture that during the 2010 midterm elections, media reports claimed that pre-election polling, which showed the pro-legalization Proposition 19 losing in a tight campaign, may have been suffering from the “Broadus effect,” equating it to the “[Tom] Bradley effect” in California politics and might nevertheless pass when likely voters, who otherwise supported legalization, actually showed up at voting booths.¶ Surveys confirm that White Californians (and Americans) participate in the sales and consumption of marijuana at rates exceeding those of African Americans, Latinos, and Asians in the state. The true face of marijuana in California is not mainly African American or Latino; it is widely understood to be White. In none of the top California counties with the highest marijuana arrest rates per 100,000 citizens (Alpine, Calaveras, Mono, Humboldt, or Inyo) do African Americans comprise more than 1.3 percent of the respective county populations/’ Arrests in these counties and those that have traditionally ranked high, such as Plumas, Trinity, and Sierra, largely reflect the “supply-side” approach to marijuana interdiction, targeting industrial production." For instance, as felony juvenile and adult drug arrests declined throughout the 1990s, only among White males and females did these arrests increase; marijuana was the main source of both felony and misdemeanor arrest rate increases in the state (Lockyear 2000). On the “demand side,” however, a starkly different picture emerges, most devastatingly for African Americans arrested for petty possession.8 Macallair and Males (2009) suggest that the variation in marijuana arrests at the county level in California makes very little sense. In their study, they include simple marijuana arrests in five of the least and most harsh major counties. Where San Francisco County, Mendocino County, and Alameda County (Berkeley, Oakland) align predictably with the least-harsh arresting counties for petty marijuana possession, given their liberal and progressive political orientations, the alignment of Mendocino County, Santa Cruz County, and Humboldt County with the five harshest is surprising. What is most perplexing, but largely attributed to race in their study, is that a virtual “bait and switch" occurred over the period, where some more liberal counties like San Francisco, moderate Marin County, and Contra Costa County went soft on adult marijuana arrests rates, but focused more severely on young African Americans.¶ While arrests for all major California demographic groups increased significantly between 1990 and 2008, the arrests for no group out of adult Whites, Asians, Latinos, or women ends in 2008 as high as Africa Americans began in 1990; where African American rates were 225.6 in 1990, the highest arrest rates per 100,000 in 2008 were among Latinos/Hispamcs at 212.2. By then, for African Americans, the rate had exploded to 604 per 100,000, representing a rate increase of 168 percent (Macallair and Males 2009, 4). Based on this data, Macallair and Males conclude: “Dramatic changes have occurred in the demography of marijuana arrestees....¶ In 1990, half of all marijuana possession arrests were European American (White), 60% were 21 or older, and 90% were male; in 2008, 56% were African American or Hispanic, just half were 21 or older, and 88% were male” (2009, 3). While other groups, such as Latinos/Hispanics, females, males of all races, nuddle-aged to older individuals (for all groups except Asians), and juveniles show dramatic increases, young adult African Americans (20-29 years) and those 40 years and older respectively represent the highest arrest rates over three decades (1,316.7) and the highest rate-change increase of 345 percent. Comparing arrest patterns of African Americans in the 20-29 age category (4,761) to those of Whites between 40-69 years of age (2,757), the authors quip, “Do 360,000 African Americans age 20-29 really smoke more pot than 7.2 million European Americans age 40-69?” (Macallair and Males, 2009,8. Emphasis in original text).¶ Nearly half of California’s African American population resides in its largest, most policed counties and represent the bulk of the resulting disproportionately between their population and marijuana possession arrests. African Americans heavily populate California cities that constitute nearly 30 percent of the state’s population.The pro-legalization advocacy group NORML found that, in 2002, “African Americans as compared to Wliites in California were arrested at a 5:1 (per capita) ratio on marijuana sales charges.”1 A 2010 Drug Policy Alliance study,“Targeting Blacks: Possession Arrests of African Americans in California, 2004—2008,” found disproportionate arrest patterns in each of the state’s 25 largest counties (Levine, Gettman, and Siegel 2010, 6-8, 12). In each county, the percentage of African American possession arrests was higher than the Black percentage of the total county population. Most surprising was San Francisco. During this period, this liberal Democratic. Party bastion, which had an African American woman district attorney, Kamala Harris, who rejected “Tough on Crime” ideology in preference for what she identifies as “Smart on Crime,” nonetheless was near the very bottom. Of the 25 counties, only Sacramento and Solano Counties, which both had higher percentages of Black population, arrested a higher percentage of its Black population."1 Moreover, in none of the counties does the African American marijuana arrest rate outpace that of their White counterparts; in most, the gaps in possession arrest rates were extreme. Disproportionate minority contact is the rule; there are few exceptions. A related 2010 study, commissioned by the California NAACP, “Arresting Blacks for Marijuana in California: Possession Arrests in 25 Cities, 2006—2008,’’found that in 25 select California cities, African Americans were arrested up to 12 times the rate of Whites (Levine, Gettman, and Siegel 2010). The study also found that Los Angeles arrested African Americans for low-level marijuana possession at seven times the rate of Whites. Similar disparities were found in other cities where arrest patterns were wildly disproportionate for African Americans; in Pasadena (African Americans are 11 percent of the population and 49 percent of those arrested), African Americans were arrested at 12 times the rate of Whites; San Diego arrested African Americans for marijuana possession at six times the rate of Whites; and in Sacramento (African Americans 14 percent of the population), African Americans were 51 percent of those arrested for possession. In each of the 25 major cities, the rate of African American to White marijuana possession arrests per 100,00 was, at a minimum, two times more (Compton) where the Black population was 31 percent, to a liigh of 14 times lugher in Torrance, which has a Black population of 2 percent, roughly 2,500 African American residents.Torrance also holds the highest Black rate of marijuana arrests per 100,000 at an extreme, 3,227. But it does not stand alone. Burbank, which has an African American population of less than 3 percent, has a 2,077 rate of marijuana arrests per 100,000. Similarly, Glendale, with a Black population of 2.9 percent, has a rate of 1,843 arrests per 100,000. Merced has a Black rate of marijuana arrests of 1,448 per 100,000 citizens. Even the more moderate cases of arrests per 100,000 and Black percentage of marijuana possession arrests are grossly disproportionate. Of the 1,515 persons in California prisons actually incarcerated on marijuana charges in 2010, nearly half—750—were Black Americans.¶ These out-of-balance arrest patterns persist despite there being roughly a 3.4 percent adult African American population in the state from which to draw." In fact, it might be more useful to describe the racial double standard in the experiences of average non-Whites and Whites in California and other states as constituting a face of “bi-raciality.” Researchers studying inequality within and among industrialized countries have found that within every state in the United States, the risk of being incarcerated differs by race, with African American youth and adults for nonviolent or violent crimes having the greatest risk (Wilkinson and Pickett 2009). Rejecting the premise that imprisonment reflects incidence of criminal offenses between races, the study affirms, “.... African American youth commit fewer drug crimes. But African American youth are overwhelmingly more likely to be arrested, to be detained, to be charged, to be charged as if an adult, and to be imprisoned. The same pattern is true for African American and Hispanic adults, who are treated more harshly than Whites at every stage of judicial proceedings. Facing the same charges, White defendants are far more likely to have the charges against them reduced, or to be offered ‘diversion’—a deferment or suspension of prosecution if the offender agrees to certain conditions, such as completing a drug rehabilitation progranune” (150). Consistent with most aspects of punishment in the United States, from arrest to sentencing, there remain unofficial “Black codes” that effectively apply to African Americans and those that apply to others.¶ Beyond research, one need look no further than the NBC cable news networks, MSNBC and CNBC, and their respective crime-and-punishment and drug series. A key feature of the former is a host of “reality” prison series shows produced by 44 Blue Productions, such as Pitbulls and Parolees, Lockup: Extended Stay, and Behind Bars, which tend routinely to provide viewers with a foreboding look behind the scenes of U.S. and international prison cultures. Individual inmates, corrections officers, family members, wardens, and health workers are typically cast around notorious Part 1 Index offenses such as homicide, arson, armed robbery, larceny- theft, forcible rape, burglary, and vehicle theft. African Americans, Latinos, and Whites of lower socioeconomic status and education levels are preponderant in this casting. CNBC’s primetime shows Marijuana, Inc., and Marijuana, USA, present sympathetic market-focused segments such as “The Confused State of Pot Law Enforcement,” “How Big is the Marijuana Market?” “State by State Guide to Laws, Consumption, and Costs,” and “Marijuana in America: History and Culture.” The focus is often places like Mendocino County, California, where estimates suggest that as much as 60 percent of its 86,000 residents cultivate, distribute, or consume high-grade marijuana; its White population is 88 percent, compared to Latinos at roughly 20 percent, Native Americans at 5.8 percent, and African Americans at 0.9 percent. Nevertheless, arrest patterns and conviction rates do not reflect who cultivates, uses, or sells marijuana most in the state or country.¶ A 2007 National Survey on Drug Use and Health report for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that among racial groups, drug use tends to be lowest in nonmetropolitan counties, (except for individuals claiming two or more racial identities and Native Americans and Alaska Natives) and highest in metropolitan counties.13 The same pattern among these groups holds specifically for marijuana use, including African American respondents at 7.3 percent reporting past-month use,Whites at 6.2 percent, Latinos at 5.0 percent, and Asians at 1.8 percent. But, this provides only a snapshot of reported use among groups in the country, further highlights the disparity in arrests among African Americans when compared to the reported use of other groups, and is not generalizable as an explanation of marijuana use. For instance, a 2001 iteration of the same survey of reported lifetime use (as opposed to past month) showed that Whites reported significantly higher use than African Americans (41.5 to 35.5 percent, respectively) in 2000 and (44.5 to 38.6 percent, respectively) in 2001. The same holds true for reported past-year usage respectively, with Whites at 11.2 percent in 2000 to African Americans at 10.9 percent, and again in 2001 respectively, with Whites at 12.9 and African Americans at 12.2 percent. Nevertheless, African Americans are arrested more than the several groups who report higher usage and at rates that far exceed their reported use relative to Whites.¶ For Blacks throughout the United States, marijuana is more a “gateway drug” for granting local, state, and national law enforcement the capacity to greater mass incarceration of African Americans and other groups than it is for exposure to more serious drug use. Comparing arrest rates for select offenses'4 in 1990 and 2008, research shows marijuana possession to be an extreme outlier (Macallair and Males 2009, 3). As arrests declined for every available category, arrest rates for possession of small quantities of marijuana moved in a positive direction at 127 percent. Small-scale, personal-use marijuana possession arrests far exceeded property crimes, violent crimes, and all other drug possession and sales. As pop culture (e.g., the TV Guide Network series Weeds), voters, and public opinion show signs of greater tolerance for some form of regulation, decriminalization, and normalization, law enforcement has been unrelenting. Harry G. Levine and his colleagues (2010) insist: “In the last 20 years, California made 850,000 arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana, and half a million arrests in the last ten years. The people arrested were disproportionately African Americans and Latinos, overwhelmingly young people, especially young men” (Levine, Gettman, and Siegel 2010). The patterns of disparity, especially between African Americans and Whites, in California’s counties and cities are consistent with patterns in cities and states across the United States. For instance, in Syracuse, in Onondaga County, New York, the arrest rate for minor marijuana possession is 1,795 per 100,000, compared to 169 per 100,000 for Whites; the Black population in Syracuse is 10.61, according to NORML. In Cincinnati, Ohio, in Hamilton County, the marijuana arrest gap between African Americans and Whites is 1,292 per 100,000 to 341. Kansas City, Missouri, in Jackson County similarly arrests African Americans for possession at 1,093 per 100,000 to 292 per 100,000 for Whites. Hartford, Connecticut, in Hartford County, yields similar disparities, with African Americans being arrested at a rate 938 per 100,000 and Whites at 206 arrests. Communities like Cleveland, Ohio; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Duluth, Minnesota; Saginaw, Michigan; Omaha, Nebraska; and Albany, New York, African American per-capita arrests for possession of small quantities of marijuana, when compared to Whites and others, is similarly reflective of the reality that African Americans are treated with a double standard under marijuana laws in the United States. New York City aggressively arrests African American offenders at a ratio of 9:1 when compared to White offenders. According to the author of the Marijuana Policy Project,”... 1998 and 2007 the New York police arrested 374,900 people whose most serious crime was the lowest-level misdemeanor marijuana offense. That number is eight times higher than the number of arrests (45,300) from 1988 to 1997. Nearly 90 percent arrested between 1998 and 2007 were male, despite the fact that national studies show marijuana use roughly equal between men and women. And while national surveys show Whites are more likely to use marijuana than Blacks and Latinos, the New York study reported that 83 percent of those arrested were Black or Latino. Blacks accounted for 52 percent of the arrests, Latinos and other people of color accounted for 33 percent, while Whites accounted for only 15 percent” (Mirken 2007). According to NORML, for four years in a row during the previous decade, U.S. marijuana arrests set an all-time record. Marijuana arrests of all groups are currently approaching 850,000 arrests per year.¶ The plight of African Americans and the extreme disparities they experience in California and other states have become routine. No group of adults in the state or country would benefit more from a reasoned policy of decriminalization. They have become the canary in the mine of the unrelenting War on Drugs that has engulfed members of nearly every major population in the state. Alarmist reaction to “crack” in the 1980s and 1990s at least signaled the emergence of a crisis in rural and urban African American communities to which they could organize and respond. Yet seeping under the radar, marijuana has facilitated the mass criminalization of ordinary African Americans for at least the past three decades. Religious organizations and leaders who decry the human waste and community dissolution associated with mass incarceration and criminalization are mostly hostile to the idea of decriminalization. Marijuana, like homosexuality, has seemingly always been taboo in the African American church, even as members’ and parishioners’ families and lives are deeply affected. This may be largely due to the social stigma attached to marijuana and the reality that tins population has been targeted for all sorts of adverse policies from the undoing of affirmative action, social welfare, education, housing, and public health, including widespread gun violence among their young.
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