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Report: Racial disparity in drug arrests alarming

25th July 2016   ·   0 Comments

By Kari Dequine Harden
Contributing Writer

Of all those arrested in New Orleans for felony marijuana possession, 94 percent are Black, despite making up about 60 percent of the total population.

Of those arrested for marijuana-related offenses (not including distribution), 85 percent are Black.

Given the widely accepted data showing different races in the U.S. use marijuana at about the same rate, “the disparity in arrests and justice system involvement for the black population is alarming,” according to a recent report from the New Orleans Office of the Vera Institute of Justice. “Almost all of the people who face the most severe consequences for marijuana charges are black.”

The racial disparity, is “very striking and very disturbing,” said Jon Wool, co-author of Vera’s report “Racial Disparity in Marijuana Policing in New Orleans.” The report analyzed data from 2010 through 2015, and looked at cases for which marijuana possession or possession with intent to distribute was the most serious charge at arrest.

“Black New Orleanians account for about 79 percent of summonses and arrests for marijuana possession (including misdemeanors and felony arrests for repeat possession of marijuana, but not including possession with intent to distribute),” the report found.

According to a study conducted several years ago by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Black people nationwide were 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people in 2010. During the same time, the study found that white and Black marijuana usage rates were nearly identical, about 12 to 14 percent.

While the Vera report did not look at geographical location of arrests, the disparity begs the question, what if New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) officers looking for marijuana-related arrests were deployed in the same numbers on elite college campuses as in poor Black neighborhoods?

“Where and what is asked of officers makes all the difference,” Wool acknowledged. “If you directed police to deploy geographically equally for marijuana, you would see arrests go up dramatically among white people.”

Wool also stressed prioritizing of resources, and focusing on what presents the greatest danger to the public. Enforcement can be somewhat discretionary – especially with limited resources. It isn’t as if all the people texting and driving are stopped and cited, Wool used as an example.

Louisiana, boasting some of the harshest marijuana laws in the country, is just the most egregious microcosm in the nation that leads the world in locking people up.

The United States has about five percent of the world’s population and houses around 25 percent of its prisoners.

Louisiana’s incarceration rate is nearly five times Iran’s, 13 times China’s and 20 times Germany’s.

“A majority of Louisiana inmates are housed in for-profit facilities, which must be supplied with a constant influx of human beings or a $182 million industry will go bankrupt,” Cindy Chang wrote in a 2012 series in The Times-Picayune.

Given the current climate of fear and distrust between law enforcement and the communities they are hired to protect, Wool notes the marijuana arrest disparities “speak to a broader set of problems, whether unintentional or intentional.”

Each and every interaction between police and residents has the potential to turn negative, and “We should [be] trying to create more constructive and supportive relationships, and eliminate destructive interactions,” Wool said, while acknowledging police have “the ability to make discretionary decisions,” in addition to putting policies in place to help guide behavior.

However over the past eight years in New Orleans, there have been very promising steps related to marijuana law and intended on reducing the city’s jail population and addressing a strategy of law enforcement that wastes massive amounts of public dollars and unnecessarily ruins lives over minor infractions.

In 2008, the city passed an ordinance encouraging summonses for municipal offenses. In 2010, an ordinance was passed creating a municipal offense for first possession of marijuana. In 2015, the state amended the marijuana code to make second-possession marijuana a misdemeanor.

In March 2016, the city council enacted an ordinance creating misdemeanor municipal offenses parallel to each state marijuana possession offense with penalties significantly lower than those for the corresponding state statutes.

“Under the Mayor’s leadership, we’ve done a lot of work to improve the way we police in New Orleans,” NOPD spokesman Tyler Gamble wrote in an emailed response.

“Since implementing the consent decree, we’ve improved our data collection, created new and better systems of accountability and improved training for all of our officers to ensure we are a bias-free police department.” Gamble pointed to the police data available to the public at

“These measures have succeeded at keeping a large number of defendants out of jail for a first offense possession charge, but they do not address the other negative consequences of involvement in the criminal justice system due to a marijuana arrest, repercussions that include obstacles to finding or keeping a job, securing affordable housing, gaining access to government benefits, and exercising the right to vote,” according to the Vera report. “These effects disproportionately burden black New Orleanians. The next step for the police and other system actors is to address these adverse racial impacts.”

The adverse impacts of marijuana policing and its consequences are shouldered not just by those arrested, but by the entire city, the report argues. “In 2014 and 2015, marijuana possession charges accounted for 280 jail bed days per month,” with a cost to the city of $113 per day to jail a defendant.

Aside from diverting resources from more pressing needs in the criminal justice system, the report details the impact on defendants and their families.

“Even a first possession marijuana offense can involve a fine of several hundred dollars,” the report notes. “All of these burdens fall disproportionately in indigent defendants, for whom a few hundred dollars in fines and fees can be insurmountable—and nonpayment may lead to incarceration.”

The effects of an arrest, detainment or conviction can have immediate and lifelong consequences. The jail in New Orleans remains notoriously unsafe, particularly for those who have other health conditions, and “People may lose their jobs because they miss work, particularly if they are detained, but also potentially due to multiple court appearances,” according to the report.

For a little bit of pot – something accepted widely today as relatively benign, convictions can result in the fracturing of family units and destabilizing of individual lives and entire communities.

The ACLU report concludes, “The War on Marijuana, like the larger War on Drugs of which it is a part, is a failure. It has needlessly ensnared hundreds of thousands of people in the criminal justice system, had a staggeringly disproportionate impact on African-Americans, and comes at a tremendous human and financial cost.”

Typically decades behind most of the rest of the nation in progressive, common sense policy change and social justice, Louisiana remains a stark contrast to the growing number of states legalizing recreational marijuana. (Medical marijuana is legal in 25 states, and that does not include Louisiana, where medical marijuana is technically legal for specified conditions, but without protections in place. It is decriminalized in 16 states, and recreational marijuana is legal in four states, as well as some cities.)

In Colorado, anyone over the age of 21 can walk into a retail store staffed by bubbly “budtenders” who enthusiastically ask just want kind of strain or form of cannabis the customer seeks. From creams and candies to a display case stocked with glass jars full of fragrant green buds, the plant is quickly losing the ill-informed demonization of the past.

When marijuana was banned in 1937, it was not about public health or safety, but rather politics, racism, and profits. Also banned was its cousin, hemp, a “super crop” which can be used to produce textiles, paper and plastic products, and fuel – thus threatening the era’s biggest corporations.

In addition to a better-informed society coming to the realization that a joint is not so different from a glass of wine, marijuana is increasingly being studied and recognized for its medicinal and therapeutic value.

While the ability of cannabis to provide relief for people with cancer and glaucoma is well-known, a recent study published in Health Affairs showed in states with legal medical marijuana, the number of prescriptions dropped for drugs used to treat anxiety, depression, nausea, pain, psychosis, seizures, and sleep disorders.

Disastrous consequences of social demise as predicted by some have not happened in Colorado as a result of legalizing recreational marijuana. Rather, the state coffers are full of new tax dollars being directed largely into public schools, tens of thousands of jobs were created, and marijuana use among teens in the state is actually seeing a decrease.

While Louisiana is likely years away from the legalization of recreational marijuana, there are signs – especially in New Orleans – for hope in the movement toward common sense policies.

“Because police officers are required by ordinance to issue summonses in lieu of making arrests for municipal offenses in the absence of special circumstances, the intention was to dramatically decrease the number of people detained pretrial for possession of marijuana,” according to the Vera report. “This policy has been largely successful, with summonses issued in approximately 70 percent of eligible cases. Furthermore, as the use of summonses increased, the number of arrests for marijuana related offenses declined.”

Responding directly to the findings in the Vera report, Gamble wrote, “This report highlights the tremendous impact that the 2010 ordinance [implemented in 2011] had on our ability to use police discretion to reduce penalties for low level offenders. We’re hopeful that the new ordinance will continue to show significant impact. The numbers in this report show that when we use summons in lieu of arrests, we’re using that discretion equally across the board.”

This article originally published in the July 25, 2016 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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