In its report “A Tale of two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform,” the ACLU points out that marijuana arrests continue to clog the criminal justice system even though there is broad support for legalization. And, 9 out of 10 marijuana arrests continue to be for simple possession.
Although possession may be treated as a misdemeanor, depending on how much weed was involved, the impact of a marijuana arrest can still be devastating. A conviction can carry life-altering collateral consequences. For example, parents convicted of marijuana possession may lose their kids, according to the ACLU. Immigrants, even lawful permanent residents, can be deported for marijuana offenses. You can lose your public benefits and healthcare, be evicted and barred from public housing, and find it nearly impossible to find a job.
Over the course of the Drug War, these consequences have been disproportionately borne by communities of color. Although people of color use marijuana at no greater rate than whites, Blacks are much more likely to be arrested for using it. Nationwide, the ACLU found, Black people are 3.6 times more likely than white peers to be arrested for marijuana offenses.
In Iowa, the racial disparity is even more stark. In 2018 in Iowa, African Americans were 7.3 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses than similarly situated whites. That’s the fifth worst disparity in the country.
Pottawattamie County had the largest racial disparity in marijuana arrests. African Americans are 17.6 times more likely to be arrested for weed than white people in that county. Other large racial disparities were present in Cerro Gordo County (11.3 times more likely), Dubuque County (13.2 times more likely) and Scott County (12.7 times more likely).
What is the explanation for this racial disparity in arrest rates?
Again, African Americans are no more likely than whites to use marijuana, so why are they arrested at such disproportionate rates?
The ACLU blames racial profiling by law enforcement. It appears that police have a strong tendency to stop, search and arrest people based on their actual or perceived race than any actual reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. Moreover, minor crimes like marijuana possession are often enforced aggressively in communities of color, while they are not enforced nearly as aggressively in predominantly white communities.
The result of such policies is that people of color are caught up in the criminal justice system for minor offenses at a much higher rate than whites. This can have lifelong consequences in terms of future entanglements with the criminal justice system and in terms of collateral consequences. It has also been a major driver of mass incarceration in the U.S.