All races get high, but arrest data make it look like a black problem

All races get high, but arrest data make it look like a black problem

Most of this nation’s illicit drug users are white. That’s not an opinion. That’s an irrefutable fact. There are more white people in this country than people of any other race. And according to the available surveys on the topic, about 55 percent of white people age 12 and above have used illicit drugs in their lifetime, compared to 46 percent of black people, 39 percent of Hispanics and 23 percent of Asians.

You don’t have to be a math whiz to know that 55 percent of a higher number is significantly more than 46 percent of a lower number. And, yet, our nation’s courtrooms, jail cells and prisons give one the impression that drug use is a predominantly black thing.

When it comes to marijuana use in particular, according to a 2018 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 51 percent of white Americans over age 12 have used marijuana at some point, compared to 42 percent of black Americans. And, yet, as cleveland.com’s Peter Krouse revealed in a recent report, last year in Cleveland, black people were charged with misdemeanor possession of marijuana nine times as often as white people.

In 2018, black people were arrested almost 10 times more often.

Therefore, Cleveland City Council’s recent decision to eliminate penalties for misdemeanor possession of marijuana isn’t just a step toward decriminalization; it’s a step toward racial justice. It’s a small step away from criminal justice policies that disproportionately target black people for crimes that all racial groups are committing.

Ian Friedman, a criminal defense attorney who serves as president of the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association was taken aback by the data cleveland.com obtained. “I’m not surprised that more African Americans are cited than any other demographic, he said, “but I am surprised to the degree. I didn’t realize just how dramatic the numbers were.”

Friedman ought not have been surprised. These kind of lopsided disparities are prevalent across the country. In her 2010 groundbreaking book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindess,” author Michelle Alexander includes a statistic from Illinois showing that black people make up approximately “90 percent of those sentenced to prison for a drug offense.”

Alexander’s book is not just an examination of the policies that have led to arrest disparities such as those in Cleveland; it’s also an indictment of a society that looks at the numbers and doesn’t notice the obvious problem.

“If 100 percent of the people arrested and convicted for drug offenses were African-American,” she writes, “the situation would provoke outrage among the majority of Americans who consider themselves to be nonracist and who know very well that Latinos, Asian Americans and whites also commit drug crimes.” But somehow the public has been made to believe that it’s perfectly reasonable and above board that there are places where black people make up 90 percent of those in legal trouble for using or distributing drugs.

If I were to argue that white people rarely smoke marijuana, most people would find that remark laughably absurd. But if I were to say that compared to black people, white people are rarely cited for marijuana use, no honest observer could deny it. And the public has generally shrugged as if that’s just the way things are.

There’s an argument to be made for the decriminalization of marijuana even without mentioning the racial disparities in arrest data. Prohibition doesn’t work. At some point or another, most people are going to seek to alter their mood by drinking or smoking something. Law enforcement spends an inordinate amount of time, money and resources trying to keep people who aren’t endangering the public from getting high. Previous generations spent a similar portion of time, money and resources trying to keep people from getting drunk.

The lessons of prohibition should have precluded a War on Drugs. Instead, this country decided that criminalizing drug use instead of medically treating addiction was the appropriate strategy. And Alexander’s book makes the point that black people and communities weren’t the unintended casualties of the drug war but were the specific focus. In other words, the drug war was never really about illicit drug use, but was instead the pretext to counteract and neutralize the gains black communities made during the civil rights era.

You may scoff, but if you do, please be prepared to explain the whopping racial disparities in the arrests, something other than the nonsense that black drug users and dealers are easier to find. They’re not. They’re just the ones who are targeted.

If everybody who used marijuana was equally likely to go to jail for it, the law could more easily be defended. Then again, if everybody who used marijuana bore an equal risk of going to jail, it’s hard to imagine there being a law against it at all.

Jarvis DeBerry is a columnist at Cleveland.com and a member of the editorial board. Reach him at jdeberry@cleveland.com or on Twitter at @jarvisdeberry

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