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Featured News End Mass Criminalization How Police and Politicians Profit by Destroying the Lives of Young Black People for Tiny Amounts of Pot
Friday, 15 November 2013 17:21

How Police and Politicians Profit by Destroying the Lives of Young Black People for Tiny Amounts of Pot

Written by  Harry Levine | The Nation

The federal government has subsidized the criminalization of millions of young people simply for having a small amount of pot. “Whites Smoke Pot, but Blacks Are Arrested.” That was the headline of a column by Jim Dwyer, the great Metro desk reporter for The New York Times, in December 2009.

Although Dwyer was writing about New York City, he summed up perfectly two central and enduring facts about marijuana use and arrests across the country: whites and blacks use marijuana equally, but the police do not arrest them equally. A third important fact: the vast majority (76 percent) of those arrested and charged with the crime of marijuana possession are young people in their teens and 20s.

Over the last fifteen years, police departments in the United States made 10 million arrests for marijuana possession—an average of almost 700,000 arrests a year. Police arrest blacks for marijuana possession at higher rates than whites in every state and nearly every city and county—as FBI Uniform Crime Reports and state databases indisputably show. States with the largest racial disparities arrest blacks at six times the rate of whites. This list includes Alabama, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Nebraska, Nevada, New York and Wisconsin.

Big city police departments are among the worst offenders. Police in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York have arrested blacks for marijuana possession at more than seven times the rate of whites. Since 1997, New York City alone has arrested and jailed more than 600,000 people for possessing marijuana; about 87 percent of the arrests are of blacks and Latinos. For years, police in New York and Chicago have arrested more young blacks and Latinos for simple marijuana possession than for any other criminal offense whatsoever.

Other large urban areas that make huge numbers of racially biased arrests include Atlanta, Baltimore, Buffalo, Cleveland, Dallas–Fort Worth, Detroit, Fort Lauderdale, Houston, Las Vegas, Memphis, Miami, Nashville, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Tampa and Washington, DC. And across the United States, one-third of marijuana arrestees are teenagers; 62 percent are age 24 or younger; and most of them are ordinary high school or college students and young workers.

The essential study of these possession arrests and their pervasive racial bias is The War on Marijuana in Black and White, an extraordinary book-length report released by the ACLU earlier this year. It found that police arrest blacks for marijuana possession at higher rates than whites in poor, middle-class and wealthy communities (with richer counties showing the greatest bias). The glaring racial disparities in marijuana arrests are “as staggering in the Midwest as in the Northeast, in large counties as in small, on city streets as on country roads…. They exist regardless of whether blacks make up 50% or 5% of a county’s overall population.”

Young whites (age 18 to 25), however, use marijuana more than young blacks, and government studies comparing marijuana use among whites and blacks of all ages have found that both groups use it at a similar rate.

* * *

Why are marijuana arrests so racially skewed? Such dramatic and widespread racial disparities are clearly not the product of personal prejudice or racism on the part of individual police officers. This is not a problem of training or supervision or rogue squads or bad apples. It’s a systemic problem, a form of institutional racism created and administered by people at the highest levels of law enforcement and government.

Most people arrested for marijuana possession were not smoking it: they typically had a small amount hidden in their clothing, vehicle or personal effects. The police found the marijuana by stopping and searching them (often illegally), or by tricking them into revealing it.

Police departments concentrate their patrols only in certain neighborhoods, usually ones designated as “high crime.” These are mainly places where low-income whites and people of color live. In these neighborhoods, police stop and search the most vehicles and individuals while looking for “contraband” of any type to make an arrest. The most common item that people in any neighborhood possess that will get them arrested—and the most common item that police find—is a small amount of marijuana.

Police officers patrolling in middle- and upper-middle-class neighborhoods typically do not search the vehicles and pockets of white people, so most well-off whites enjoy a de facto legalization of marijuana possession. Free from the intense surveillance and frequent searches that occur in other neighborhoods, they have little reason to fear a humiliating arrest and incarceration. This produces patterns, as in Chicago, where whites constitute 45 percent of the population but only 5 percent of those arrested for possession.

The result has been called “racism without racists.” No individual officers need harbor racial animosity for the criminal justice system to produce jails and courts filled with black and brown faces. But the absence of hostile intent does not absolve policy-makers and law enforcement officials from responsibility or blame. As federal judge Shira Scheindlin recently determined in two prominent stop-and-frisk cases, New York City’s top officials “adopted an attitude of willful blindness toward statistical evidence of racial disparities in stops and stop outcomes.” She cited the legal doctrine of “deliberate indifference” to describe police and city officials who “willfully ignored overwhelming proof that the policy…is racially discriminatory and therefore violates the United States Constitution.”

Racially biased marijuana enforcement stretches far beyond New York City—and its pernicious effects extend far beyond the degrading experience of being arrested and jailed. Most serious are the lifelong criminal records produced by a single arrest. Twenty years ago, misdemeanor arrest records were papers stored in dusty file cabinets. Now they are computerized and instantly available for $20 or less from commercial database firms—and easily found by a Google search for the phrase “criminal records.” (Try it yourself.) Employers, landlords, schools, banks and credit card companies rule out applicants on the basis of these now universally available records, which have been aptly described as a “scarlet letter” and a “new Jim Crow.” The substantial damage caused by criminal records from the millions of marijuana arrests has also been willfully disregarded by top officials almost everywhere, including in Congress and the White House.

Perhaps surprisingly, police departments, prosecutors and elected officials rarely discuss their marijuana arrests. They don’t take credit for—or try to justify—arresting and jailing people in record-breaking numbers for possession. In fact, they usually seek to keep marijuana arrests out of the public eye.

This makes it difficult for many white Americans to believe that so many people are being arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana. The news media don’t report on these cases; nor are white Americans likely to personally know anyone who has been arrested (or whose children have been arrested) for marijuana possession. To an extraordinary extent, middle-class and especially upper-middle-class and wealthy white Americans have been shielded from information about—and remain unaffected by—the policing of marijuana possession. The near-invisibility of these arrests has also hidden the strong support for them by police departments and prosecutors.

* * *

The national crusade against marijuana can be traced to the early 1990s, as the “war on drugs” shifted its focus from crack cocaine to marijuana under Bill Clinton. Since then, Congress has regularly allocated billions in federal funding to local police and prosecutors under the Justice Department’s anti-drug and police programs. Grantees often report their drug possession arrests as evidence of their accomplishments using these funds—and as proof that they should receive more. Federal money has thus subsidized the arrests of millions of young people for possessing marijuana, disproportionately young people of color. Prominent blue-state Democrats like Joe Biden, Dianne Feinstein, Charles Schumer, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have strongly supported these grants over the years; in 2009, the fiscal stimulus actually doubled the anti-drug funding for local law enforcement agencies.

More than many people realize, prominent liberals have long been among law enforcement’s most important political allies. A substantial power bloc of “drug war liberals”—or what might more broadly be termed “law-and-order liberals”—has played a major role in sustaining this drug war policing. Police departments depend on liberal Democrats to defend their funding and policy needs. Liberals in Congress and the White House, in turn, depend on police lobbying groups to support important legislation, such as their endorsement of immigration and gun reforms. And politicians at all levels of government gain credibility with many voters by having top police officials vouch for their steadfastness in “fighting crime.”

With this federal support and encouragement, arrests for marijuana possession climbed from a crack-era low of 260,000 in 1990, to 500,000 in 1995, to 640,000 in 2000, to 690,000 in 2005, to 750,000 in 2010. The ACLU calculates that these arrests have cost taxpayers at least $3.6 billion a year. And there is absolutely no evidence that they reduce serious or violent crime—or even drug use.

So the question again becomes: Why? Why have these millions of arrests happened? Why is it so hard to stop them? While federal funding and drug war propaganda have helped drive marijuana arrests, police and sheriffs’ departments have had their own reasons to embrace and fiercely defend the practice. Central to understanding the national marijuana arrest crusade is the fact that significant constituencies within police departments benefit from marijuana arrests, find them useful for internal departmental purposes, and want them to continue.

For ordinary patrol officers, marijuana arrests are relatively safe and easy work. Policing can be dangerous, but officers are unlikely to get shot or stabbed while searching and arresting teenagers for marijuana possession. All police departments have formal and informal activity quotas; in many departments, officers can show productivity and earn overtime pay by stopping and searching ten or so young people near the end of a shift and making a marijuana arrest. Police officers in New York have long used the term “collars for dollars” to refer to the practice of making misdemeanor arrests to earn overtime pay. Also, from the officers’ point of view, people possessing marijuana are highly desirable arrestees. As one veteran lieutenant put it, they are “clean”; unlike drunks and heroin addicts, young marijuana users rarely have HIV, hepatitis, tuberculosis or even body lice. They are unlikely to throw up on the officer, in the patrol car or at the station. Marijuana arrests are indeed a quality-of-life issue—for the police.

Most important, police department supervisors at all levels find that marijuana possession arrests are very useful. They are proof of productivity to their superiors; some supervisors also receive overtime pay for the extra work by officers under their command. Making many searches and arrests for minor offenses is also excellent training for rookie police. If a new officer screws up the paperwork, it doesn’t matter because, as one sergeant explained, “it’s just a pot arrest.” And if a crisis or emergency comes up, police commanders can temporarily reassign officers making arrests for marijuana without hindering an ongoing investigation. This “reserve army” of police focusing on petty offenses keeps officers busy, provides records of their whereabouts and productivity, and gives commanders staffing flexibility.

Marijuana arrests also enable police department managers to obtain fingerprints, photographs and other data on young people who would not otherwise end up in their databases. There is nothing else the police can do that gets so many new people into their system as the broad net of marijuana possession arrests.

Police officials and managers have become so dependent on marijuana arrests that one could reasonably conclude that their departments are addicted to them. And they don’t want to give up their habit. In recent years, police agencies, prosecutors’ offices, and their influential network of political and lobbying organizations have emerged as the chief opponents of drug-law reform. It is not the religious right, or anti-drug groups, or even the drug treatment industry that lobbies and campaigns against marijuana ballot initiatives and legislative drug-law reforms. Rather, law enforcement organizations are leading the charge as well as providing the troops to defend the drug war.

* * *

The ACLU’s report emphatically calls for an end to marijuana possession arrests, noting that the only way to accomplish this is by legalizing the possession and use of marijuana, and ultimately by regulating its production and sale.

Although the decriminalization of marijuana possession has been implemented in countries with a national police system, in the United States this has turned out to be a false solution. When possession becomes a “noncriminal” offense but still an illegal one, local law enforcement agencies often continue many of the same practices as before—but now without public defenders to represent the young people charged with a “drug offense,” and without public data to document what police, prosecutors and courts are doing. Some police departments simply ignore the decriminalization laws, as the NYPD has done for over fifteen years.

However, as Colorado and Washington have proved in just the last year, there is a very good alternative: even without instituting commercial sale, the legalization of marijuana can stop most of these possession arrests.

The larger goal of ending punitive and biased drug arrests requires seismic changes in law enforcement: it will mean creating policing for a post–drug war America. One reform that makes others possible is guaranteeing public access to much more aggregate criminal justice data, both historical and current. With it, researchers and journalists can reveal routine police, prosecutor and court practices, as some of us have been doing for marijuana arrests and stop-and-frisks.

One way of conceptualizing these changes is to view them as bringing the civil rights movement to policing policies. In the last two decades, police department staff have become increasingly racially integrated. But in many cities and counties, the day-to-day practices of police and sheriffs’ departments are still determined by the race, class and ethnicity of a neighborhood’s residents. Despite the many successes of the civil rights movement, we continue to live within two worlds of policing, separate and unequal: one for middle-class and wealthier people, the other for poorer Americans and, especially, people of color.

It is time for America to fully embrace equal policing for all. Unfortunately, like all humane, just and progressive change, this will not be granted. It must be won.

Link to original article from The Nation

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    The city of Chicago today yanked a permit for the first demonstration planned for the weekend of the NATO summit in a dispute over where the National Nurses United can hold its rally May 18.

    Written on Wednesday, 09 May 2012 13:28 Read more...
  • Socialist Wins in France: Two Articles Explain the Historical and Current Context
    Socialist Wins in France: Two Articles Explain the Historical and Current Context

    "France, Okay, But Could a Socialist Gain Power in the US? Here's How It Almost Happened" by Greg Mitchell of the Nation, and "François Hollande wins French presidential election" by Angelique Chrisafis of the Guardian.

    Written on Monday, 07 May 2012 17:44 Read more...
  • NNU Rally to Tax Wall Street and Heal America
    NNU Rally to Tax Wall Street and Heal America

    Nurses, Robin Hood and the band of merry women and men, and scores of friends
are strapping on their boots and preparing to head to Chicago Friday, May 18.

    Written on Monday, 07 May 2012 16:29 Read more...
  • 9 Swing States, Critical to Presidential Race, Are Mixed Lot
    9 Swing States, Critical to Presidential Race, Are Mixed Lot

    Since the housing bubble burst, Nevada has been plagued with record foreclosures, the nation’s steepest drop in home values and its highest unemployment rate.

    Iowa, on the other hand, may have missed out on some of the boom but was spared the worst of the bust: its housing prices have stayed relatively stable, and it now has the fifth-lowest unemployment rate in the country.

    Written on Sunday, 06 May 2012 22:46 Read more...
  • Defense trumps poverty in Republican House
    Defense trumps poverty in Republican House

    American soldiers learned the hard way not to walk down enemy trails in Vietnam — and certainly not twice. But here come the House Republicans, marching into the sunlight by shifting billions from poverty programs to the Pentagon, all within hours of adopting an entirely new round of tax cuts for those earning more than $1 million a year.

    Written on Friday, 04 May 2012 16:50 Read more...
  • McDermott Will & Emery's Pardo discusses impacts of EPA's fracking rule (video and transcript)
    McDermott Will & Emery's Pardo discusses impacts of EPA's fracking rule (video and transcript)

    How will U.S. EPA's oil and gas air rule affect the fracking industry? During today's OnPoint, Jim Pardo, a partner at McDermott Will & Emery, discusses the broader impacts of the rule ....

    Written on Thursday, 03 May 2012 23:19 Read more...
  • One Year After Bin Laden’s Death, Bring the Troops Home Now
    One Year After Bin Laden’s Death, Bring the Troops Home Now

    Today marks one year since the death of Osama bin Laden. The CIA estimates there are fewer than 100 al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan. Since ‘getting Bin Laden’ and defeating al Qaeda were the stated reasons the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, President Barack Obama should use the anniversary to announce the end of the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

    Written on Thursday, 03 May 2012 23:12 Read more...
  • Obama's Afghanistan Speech: A Guide for the Perplexed
    Obama's Afghanistan Speech: A Guide for the Perplexed

    President Obama’s dramatic speech from Afghanistan should be parsed as a careful election-year orchestration of his plan to “wind down” the war. It is no accident that the speech came during the first-year commemoration of the killing of Osama bin Laden, the event providing Obama the rationale for ending American combat while placing hawks and political rivals on the defensive.

    Written on Thursday, 03 May 2012 23:05 Read more...
  • End Student Debt!
    End Student Debt!

    The student loan crisis finally reached center stage in Washington after the House GOP budget called for letting interest rates double on government-subsidized loans (and for deep cuts in Pell grants and other student support). If it passes, students who borrow the maximum will end up paying as much as $1,000 a year in added interest.

    Written on Thursday, 03 May 2012 20:13 Read more...
  • Women: Occupy the Left
    Women: Occupy the Left

    Women’s rights have always been a bit of an add-on for the left. At this spring’s Left Forum, only fifteen of 440 panels touched on any feminist issue, broadly understood. New Left Review is famous, at least in my apartment, for its high testosterone content (despite being edited by a woman); ditto Verso, the left’s flagship publishing house, where women authors are as rare as Siberian tigers.

    Written on Thursday, 03 May 2012 20:06 Read more...
  • Conservative Nonprofit Acts as a Stealth Business Lobbyist
    Conservative Nonprofit Acts as a Stealth Business Lobbyist

    Desperate for new revenue, Ohio lawmakers introduced legislation last year that would make it easier to recover money from businesses that defraud the state. It was quickly flagged at the Washington headquarters of the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a business-backed group that views such “false claims” laws as encouraging frivolous lawsuits. ALEC’s membership includes not only corporations, but nearly 2,000 state legislators across the country — including dozens who would vote on the Ohio bill.

    Written on Monday, 23 April 2012 19:50 Read more...
  • Meet the US media companies lobbying against transparency
    Meet the US media companies lobbying against transparency

    Corporate owners or sister companies of some of the biggest names in journalism against FCC order to post political ad data. News organizations cultivate a reputation for demanding transparency, whether by suing for access to government documents, dispatching camera crews to the doorsteps of recalcitrant politicians, or editorializing in favor of open government.

    Written on Sunday, 22 April 2012 15:31 Read more...
  • Former ALEC Supporters Now Find Connection Toxic
    Former ALEC Supporters Now Find Connection Toxic

    With thousands of consumers expressing their concerns about the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to corporations across America, even former supporters of ALEC are feeling the heat, and some are rushing to distance themselves from the organization. YUM! Brands (owners of KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut) became the 12th corporate member of ALEC to announce it is leaving the organization yesterday.

    Written on Friday, 20 April 2012 15:24 Read more...
  • A Cruel Ethos - Pay Upfront or Die
    A Cruel Ethos - Pay Upfront or Die

    Our acceptance of death for those who can’t afford medical care is unique among the advanced industrialized nations of the world. This ethos allows people who don’t have enough money or enough medical insurance to die everyday. We remain blind to the humanistic healthcare ethos of other nations, that result in greatly reduced costs and superior outcomes.

    Written on Wednesday, 18 April 2012 03:20 Read more...
  • Drug War Nightmare: How We Created a Massive Racial Caste System in America
    Drug War Nightmare: How We Created a Massive Racial Caste System in America

    The drug war has created a new Jim Crow system. Ever since Barack Obama lifted his right hand and took his oath of office, pledging to serve the United States as its 44th president, ordinary people and their leaders around the globe have been celebrating our nation’s “triumph over race.”  Obama’s election has been touted as the final nail in the coffin of Jim Crow, the bookend placed on the history of racial caste in America. 

    Written on Tuesday, 27 March 2012 19:15 Read more...
  • How ALEC Is Creating Florida-Style Messes in Other States
    How ALEC Is Creating Florida-Style Messes in Other States

    Wisconsin is a rod-and-gun state, with a hunting history that has fostered traditions of broad gun ownership and respect for the right to bear arms.

    So how did Wisconsin get saddled with a “Castle Doctrine” law that mirrors some of the worst aspects of the Florida legislation that's now at the center of the controversy over the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

    Written on Tuesday, 27 March 2012 17:42 Read more...
  • We Need More Heels Running Around Capitol Hill
    We Need More Heels Running Around Capitol Hill

    "[I]t will come, but I shall not see it ... It is inevitable. We can no more deny forever the right of self-government to one-half our people than we could keep the Negro forever in bondage. It will not be wrought by the same disrupting forces that freed the slave, but come it will, and I believe within a generation."

    Written on Tuesday, 27 March 2012 13:31 Read more...
  • The 1%’s Doctrine for the 99%
    The 1%’s Doctrine for the 99%

    Many on the American Right insist federal actions from the Civil War to recent banking regulations were encroachments on states’ rights and personal liberties, but underlying these claims – in the 1860s and today – is the greed of the richest 1 percent treating the 99 percent as chattel, writes Mark Ames.

    Written on Monday, 26 March 2012 21:21 Read more...
  • Congress Takes a Step or Two Forward, Two Steps Back
    Congress Takes a Step or Two Forward, Two Steps Back

    Watching some of the news coming from Capitol Hill this week, two old music videos started buzzing around in our heads. One was the classic “I’m Just a Bill,” from Schoolhouse Rock, in which a beleaguered piece of legislation sits outside on the marble steps hoping to someday become a law.

    Written on Monday, 26 March 2012 21:15 Read more...

PDA In Your State

Join "Countdown to Coverage" Share TPP with your Daily Newspaper

CWA devised a simple plan for which they were uniquely suited: drag TPP out of the shadows and into the light - one city at a time - using a medium they understand intimately: Daily Newspapers!

Two CWA members - Dave Felice in Denver, CO and Madelyn Elder in Portland, OR have started the ball rolling. We just need to keep up the momentum leading up to a big day of petition deliveries.

Button-ShareTPPWithNewspaper

Step 1 is to send an Op-Ed to your Daily Newspaper.

Sign the TPP Fast Track Petitions

MoveOn.org Petition - Congress Don't Renew Fast Track

Public Citizen Petition - Congress Must Reject Fast Track Authority

MoveOn.org Petition - Stop the Trans Pacific Partnership

CREDO Petition - Stop the Massive Corporate Power Grab

 

TPP: The Biggest Threat to the Internet You've Probably Never Heard Of