Maryland's new Jim Crow

Our view: The enforcement of marijuana possession laws is ineffective and expensive — and profoundly unfair to African-Americans

June 08, 2013

The good news, such as it is, from the American Civil Liberties Union's report on racial bias in marijuana enforcement is that blacks in Maryland are only about 2.9 times more likely to be arrested for possession of the drug than whites. That's actually somewhat better than the national average.

The bad news: Maryland was No. 3 among the states in per-capita arrests for marijuana possession in 2010, the last year for which data are available. Baltimore City had the fifth-highest number of arrests of African-Americans on marijuana possession charges among large counties (or in our case, county equivalents) nationwide — far in excess of what its population would warrant. Nearly 92 percent of those arrested for marijuana possession in the city that year were black. Worcester County, home of Ocean City, had by far the highest marijuana possession arrest rate for all races of any county in the nation with a population of at least 30,000. Baltimore City ranked fifth on that list. The rate of possession arrests for whites in Baltimore dropped more than 20 percent since the peak of its O'Malley-era zero-tolerance policing strategy, but the rate for blacks actually went up by 20 percent since then. Maryland spends more than $100 million a year to arrest, prosecute and incarcerate people arrested for marijuana possession, the ACLU estimates.

According to surveys of drug use, whites and blacks are about equally likely to smoke marijuana, but the ACLU's analysis of federal crime statistics found almost universal racial disparities in arrests. In the worst state, Iowa, the per-capita marijuana possession arrest rate for blacks is eight times greater than it is for whites, but blacks are at least twice as likely to get arrested in all but four states. In only one state, Hawaii, is there no racial disparity. The trend holds in almost every county in every region, regardless of the racial and economic makeup.

The report comes at a time when the nation is undergoing a profound shift in its attitudes toward marijuana. In two states, Colorado and Washington, voters have approved full legalization of the drug. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia allow the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, and 15 states have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of the drug. A Pew Research poll in April found that the number of Americans who have tried marijuana at some point in their lives has increased in the last decade, and a majority now support legalization. Nearly three-quarters said that the government's efforts to support marijuana laws aren't worth the cost.

Yet the number of marijuana possession arrests in the last decade rose significantly. Nationally, the per capita arrest rate rose by 18 percent from 2001-2010; in Maryland, it was up nearly a quarter. The ACLU report posits a number of explanations for the rise in arrests, including the "broken windows" theory of policing, CompStat and other data-based management techniques used by the police, and the existence of federal grants that use arrest numbers as a performance metric for law enforcement.

Whatever the reason, it is undeniable that the brunt of this enforcement effort has fallen on minorities, and African-Americans in particular — even in a city like Baltimore, where blacks make up more than 60 percent of the population and where most elected officials are black. The arrest rate for marijuana possession for African-Americans in the city is more than twice the national average. The consequences of this disparate enforcement are severe — including lost jobs, lost housing and lost eligibility for some public assistance.

Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein has sought to expand use of a "diversion" program that offers those arrested for marijuana possession the chance to perform community service in exchange for charges being dropped. It's a good idea that relieves crowded court dockets and avoids tagging minor offenders with criminal records. But it reaches only about a quarter of those charged with marijuana possession, and it neither fully avoids the waste of state resources nor atones for the disparity in enforcement.

Even with diversion, the toll of marijuana arrests can be severe, particularly for the poor. At a minimum, an arrest involves hours in Central Booking, and in the cases of those who can't afford bail, it can mean 30 days or more in detention while waiting for trial. The process becomes the punishment.

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