Ever since President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs,” one misguided policy after another has distorted America’s criminal justice system. With more than 2 million people behind bars, the United States has the dubious distinction of jailing more of its citizens than any other country.
The vast majority of those who languish behind bars are there because of Draconian drug laws. The crude racial bias undergirding these laws is on display when the rate of blacks arrested for marijuana possession is compared to the rate for whites.
A new study by the American Civil Liberties Union concludes the arrest rate among African-Americans for possessing marijuana is almost four times that of whites, despite comparable drug use. The study covers drug arrests in 2010. The report attributes the general increase in arrests of blacks in the decade that began in 2001 to marijuana possession.
On their face, the statistics are mind-boggling. In 2001, African-Americans were arrested at a rate of 537 per 100,000; in 2010, the rate had jumped to 726 per 100,000. During the same period, whites were arrested at a rate of 191 out of 100,000 in 2001; nine years later, the rate was 192 per 100,000.
Why the disparity? Is there an uneven application of the law? Despite those wildly different arrest rates, more whites — 460,808 — were arrested for marijuana possession in 2010, compared to 286,117 blacks, but whites represent 73 percent of the population.
Police insist that they aren’t biased, but how do they account for the wide racial disparity in arrest rates when use is about the same? The statistics raise suspicions about how laws are enforced, how police are deployed, and whether justice is fairly dispensed.
Perhaps it’s time to revisit the drug war, and ask whether the United States should continue down this road.