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Marijuana busts weighted against African Americans, says ACLU

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The basic math points to the problem.

African Americans in Tennessee make up 17 percent of the population but 46 percent of the marijuana-possession arrests.

That's according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which says a new report shows wide racial disparities in marijuana arrest rates nationwide.

Using numbers from the FBI/Uniform Crime Reporting Program Data statistics and U.S. Census Data, the ACLU report tracks marijuana arrests by race and county in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. It concludes that the nationwide rate of marijuana-possession arrests for African Americans is nearly four times greater than for whites, when arrest totals are compared with proportions of the population.

"The ACLU findings are alarming and must be addressed," said Congressman Steve Cohen of Memphis, who recently authored legislation to create a National Commission on Federal Marijuana Policy.

"Regardless of your views on marijuana, it's important that we understand the impact of current federal marijuana policy and address racial disparities in marijuana arrests," said Cohen.

"We must also examine the conflict with those state laws that allow for medicinal or personal use of marijuana. A national commission would provide us with the information we need to create sensible policy going forward."

The ACLU says the reports findings show racial disparities in marijuana arrests have grown significantly over the past 10 years.

Counting both juvenile and adult arrests, rates for whites have remained steady at about 192 arrests per 100,000 people. But the arrest rate for African Americans rose from 537 per 100,000 in 2001 to 716 per 100,000 in 2010, according to the report, meaning that proportionately, African Americans are 3.7 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana.

According to the ACLU, the racial disparity may still be greater. The FBI/Uniform Crime Reporting Program arrest data does not distinguish between white and Latino arrests because it does not identify Latinos as a distinct racial group, meaning Latinos arrested for marijuana possession are counted with whites.

Increasing arrest rates don't correlate to marijuana usage rates by race, according to data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health 2001-2012 cited in the ACLU report.

Among 18-25 year olds – aa group with higher arrest rates than other age groups, according to the report – more whites than African Americans said they used marijuana in surveys every year between 2001 and 2010.

In 2010, for example, 27.6 percent of African-Americans ages 18-25 and 33.4 percent of whites in the same age group said they had used marijuana in the previous 12 months.

Joseph Occhipinti, executive director of the National Police Defense Foundation, says despite the numbers, the disparity in arrest rates isn't racially motivated.

Occhipinti, who hadn't read the ACLU report but was familiar with it, said location and police intelligence were the main factors in marijuana arrests.

"Whenever we talk about drug enforcement, it's predicated by intelligence and reports of activity," he says, "not race or ethnic group."

Occhipinti continues, "These days police have close scrutiny, and the words 'racial profiling' scare most cops. They just want to do their jobs."

But Ezekiel Edwards, director of the ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project and one of the primary authors of the new report, argues that racial disparity in marijuana arrests only cause more problems for people of color.

"The aggressive policing of marijuana is time-consuming, costly, racially biased, and doesn't work," says Edwards. "These arrests have a significant detrimental impact on people's lives, as well as on the communities in which they live."

The ACLU study estimates that combined, U.S. states spent over $3.6 billion enforcing marijuana possession laws in 2010, and there was one marijuana arrest every 37 seconds.

According to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, "Marijuana is a harmful drug and its use should be prevented and treated – not promoted."

But Robert MacCoun, professor of public policy and law at the University of California at Berkeley, says arrests don't prevent marijuana use.

"These arrests rarely result in prosecution, and there is no basis for believing this is a deterrent," he told CNN.

"It's hard to see the purpose being served. The only use I can see is putting certain people, and in this case young black men, on notice. When you look at the statistical pattern, it's hard not to see this as racial profiling."

(This story reflects a CNN report by Chris Boyette.)


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