by Sam Levin
In the city of St. Louis, black people are arrested for marijuana possession eighteen times more often than white people.
This is the according to a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union, which says that law-enforcement agencies in the U.S. waste billions of dollars on racially biased marijuana arrests. On average across the country, blacks are four times more likely than whites to face arrests despite the fact that the two races generally use marijuana at equal rates, the ACLU says.
In St. Louis, the disparity is significantly greater, according to local advocates who cite the alarming eighteen-to-one ratio.
St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief Sam Dotson, however, argues that the data is misleading -- and emphasizes that the city does not ever engage in racial profiling.
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"We do not do targeting for marijuana," Dotson tells Daily RFT. "They say there is aggressive enforcement around marijuana laws.... I fundamentally disagree with that.... We're not profiling. We're not going out and searching for individuals to stop."
"We spend a lot of time on training our officers about how not to profile," he continues, later adding, "our goal is fair treatment of all."
Then why do the numbers show such a huge disparity in the city? It depends on whom you ask.
The ACLU argues that across the country -- and especially in states and counties where the disparity between black and white arrests is unusually high -- there is clearly a racial bias. In the national report, on view below, the ACLU specifically highlights the city of St. Louis as an area with a notable problem.
In Missouri, blacks on average are more than 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, the report says, but the ratio of black to white arrests in the city of St. Louis is 18.4 to 1.
"That kind of racial disparity in our policing and criminal-justice system is very damaging," Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri, tells Daily RFT. "There is no proof that policing and targeting marijuana possession makes us any safer."
Mittman emphasizes that this report -- an unprecedented look at local data on pot arrests across the country -- should encourage law enforcement and elected officials to acknowledge that current marijuana laws are not working and that reform is necessary.
"We have to find a fairer and smarter way to keep Americans safe," he says. "We all have to start from the basic point that the war on marijuana is a failed war.... Let's get everyone to the table, and let's have an agreement that the current solution is no solution at all."
It's a waste of resources, he argues.
"If we take money away from targeting marijuana possession, that's more money that's available for...targeting violent crime," Mittman says.
Dotson, however, argues that there is a direct link between drug offenses and more serious crimes.
"The fact is that right now, marijuana is illegal," he says, "and there is a nexus from marijuana to other criminal activities, including violence. I don't think it's a waste of money."
If the population of St. Louis city is about half African-American, why, then, is the arrest rate for marijuana so much greater for blacks?
Dotson says that the report does not consider the breakdown of calls for services that the department gets -- as well as the breakdown of bench warrants, referring to individuals who have been arrested but have not gone to court.
He explains that individuals on bench warrants are searched, and if marijuana is recovered, those are reported as new crimes.
"When we arrest someone, obviously you would expect us to search them," Dotson says. "And quite often...we find illegal substances. We find contraband."
The numbers for bench-warrant arrests have been consistent in recent years, Dotson says, pointing out that in 2012, there were 8,532 African Americans compared to 1,320 whites. And in 2011, it was 9,317 blacks and 1,275 whites in this category.
The department has an obligation to respond to the crimes that are occurring and that the community is asking it to investigate, he says.
"If we look at the crime and found the descriptions of the suspects involved in the crime, it's going to be higher than 52 percent," Dotson says, referring to the percentage of blacks in the city. "Are we profiling them [or] are we doing really good police work and following where the leads and the clues take us?"
Continue for more from Chief Sam Dotson and for the full ACLU-EM commentary and report.
Dotson continues, "When you just look at the numbers, it doesn't reflect the reality of what society is. It doesn't reflect the reality of how you police."
Dotson says he is always interested in reports that show St. Louis deviating from some norm and will look for ways to improve -- but reiterates his stance that in this case, the study is misleading. (Dotson has previously dismissed national rankings as inaccurately portraying a high crime rate in St. Louis through unfair and methodologically flawed comparisons.)
"Law enforcement is not...black and white. It really isn't," he says, "because there are lots of social and economic factors that go into it."
He says, "It's a much more complex problem."
Here's the ACLU of Eastern Missouri's press release outlining some of the local data, followed by the full national report.
THE WAR ON MARIJUANA IN BLACK AND WHITE: Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests
Report Released by ACLU National
June 4, 2013 FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
ACLU Report Shows Missouri's Blacks are 2.6 Times More Likely to be Arrested for Marijuana Possession than Whites, Despite Equal Usage Rates
National ACLU Report Features Original Data Analysis on Marijuana Arrest Rates by Race and Details High Costs of Enforcement
ST. LOUIS - According to a new report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), blacks were arrested for marijuana possession at 2.6 times the rate of whites in Missouri during 2010, despite comparable marijuana usage rates. The report, "Marijuana in Black and White: Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests," released today, is the first ever to examine state and county marijuana arrest rates nationally by race. The findings show that while there were pronounced racial disparities in marijuana arrests 10 years ago, they have grown significantly worse, and that is the case in Missouri.
In Missouri, the counties with the largest racial disparity in marijuana possession arrests were St. Louis City, Pettis, Lafayette, Jasper and Butler; St. Louis City's 18-to-1 disparity was the highest in the state. Statewide, police officers made 18,416 arrests for marijuana possession in 2010, and marijuana possession rates accounted for 50.4 percent of all drug arrests in 2010. In the past 10 years, marijuana possession arrest rates have risen 43.6 percent and the racial disparities among such arrests have increased 9 percent.
"The war on marijuana has disproportionately been a war on people of color," says Ezekiel Edwards, director of the Criminal Law Reform Project at the ACLU and one of the primary authors of the report. "State and local governments have aggressively enforced marijuana laws selectively against black people and communities, needlessly ensnaring hundreds of thousands of people in the criminal justice system at tremendous human and financial cost."
Despite the fact that a majority of Americans now support marijuana legalization, Missouri spent nearly $50 million enforcing marijuana laws in 2010. Nationally, states spent an estimated $3.61 billion enforcing marijuana possession laws in 2010 alone.
"Because marijuana laws are enforced with a racial bias, people of color disproportionately bear the brunt of the huge personal costs that often linger for years," said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri. "The war on marijuana has failed, so let's stop wasting money and resources on escalating marijuana arrests and work on policies that are smarter and fairer at reducing drug dependency."
The ACLU is calling for the states to legalize marijuana by licensing and regulating marijuana production, distribution, and possession for persons 21 or older, taxing marijuana sales, and removing state law criminal and civil penalties for such activities, which it says would eliminate the unfair racially- and community-targeted selective enforcement of marijuana laws. In addition, at a time when states are facing budget shortfalls, taxing and regulating would allow them to save millions of dollars currently spent on enforcement while raising millions more in revenue, money that can be invested in public schools and community and public health programs, including drug treatment. If legalization is not possible, the ACLU recommends depenalizing marijuana possession by removing all civil and criminal penalties for authorized use and possession for persons 21 or older; or, if depenalization is not possible, decriminalizing low-level marijuana possession by replacing all criminal penalties for use and possession of small amounts of marijuana for adults and youth with a maximum civil penalty of a small fine. Finally, if decriminalization is not possible, the ACLU suggests police and prosecutors deprioritize enforcement of marijuana possession laws.