While there’s a growing debate over whether to legalize marijuana, some are troubled by what they see as unfairness in enforcement of existing laws.
Among them is the New England Area Conference of the NAACP. The organization released a statement March 3 in support of a Rhode Island House bill that would legalize using marijuana or possessing up to an ounce. Currently, possession of an ounce or less of marijuana is a civil offense, punishable by a $150 fine.
Among their reasons for supporting that change, the statement said, was that in the United States, African-Americans were 3.7 times more likely than whites to get arrested on marijuana charges, based on the number of arrests and their share of the nation’s population.
James Vincent, president of the Providence NAACP, said the claim was based on a June 2013 report by the American Civil Liberties Union, “The War on Marijuana in Black and White.” That report charted how many blacks and whites were arrested for marijuana possession and then, based on the racial population of each state, what the marijuana arrest rate per 100,000 people was for each race.
The ACLU report used statistics compiled by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, a wide-ranging database of annual crime statistics that are often used in national crime studies because each state submits the same type of information, which allows apples-to-apples comparisons.
Nationally, according to the report, the marijuana arrest rate for African-Americans in 2010 was 716 per 100,000, while for whites it was 192 per 100,000, meaning African-Americans were 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.
The disparities were present across the country; in some states, the arrest rate for African-Americans was as much as 8.3 times the white rate.
In Rhode Island, before possession of small amounts of marijuana was decriminalized, the arrest rate for African-Americans was 524 per 100,000, while the rate for whites was 201 per 100,000. That meant African-Americans were 2.6 times more likely to be arrested on marijuana charges than their white fellow citizens.