Over the past decade, the number of marijuana arrests in St. Louis county has steadily climbed to levels four times greater than in 2001.
"They seem to be prioritizing marijuana arrests in St. Louis county," John Chasnoff, program director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, tells Daily RFT. "The war on drugs is increasingly becoming a war on marijuana."
Chasnoff is referencing data from a recently released national ACLU report on the rates of pot charges across the country.
Given that the county -- which is entirely separate from the city of St. Louis -- is divided into dozens of separate police departments, it's tough to pinpoint a direct cause of the increase. Still, one thing is clear: More people are getting arrested for pot possession.
See also: - Report: Black Missouri Drivers Face Disproportionate Number of Police Searches - Marijuana Reform Now St. Louis Law, Chief Dotson Says Will Improve Prosecutions - St. Louis Cannabis Conference: Pro-Legalization Cop Says "Public is Waking Up"
The data comes from the ACLU's report called "The War On Marijuana In Black And White," which examines racial data in states and counties of the U.S. As we reported yesterday, the central finding of the study is that, nationally, there are significant racial disparities in arrests with blacks on average facing pot possession charges four times as often as whites -- despite overall equal usage rates.
The report calls out the city of St. Louis as an extreme example with an eighteen-to-one black-to-white ratio in arrests. Metropolitan Police Chief Sam Dotson defended the department's policies in an interview with us, saying that there is no racial profiling or targeting of any kind at SLMPD. He argues that the numbers reflect the calls the department receives and the searches that take place when individuals are arrested and on bench warrants.
Since publishing our story, the ACLU has provided Daily RFT with more specific data on St. Louis county, showing one major trend -- an increase in arrests.
In 2001, there was a total of 129 arrests per 100,000 residents. And in 2010, the most recent available federal data, that number was 493 per 100,000. In between, that number grew at a fairly steady rate (220 in 2006, for example).
In total, in 2010, there were 2,556 black arrests, 2,346 white arrests and 4,928 total. (In 2001, that total was 1,312).
"It's hard to imagine that there was a corresponding increase in the use of marijuana," Chasnoff says about the county data. "You can only chalk it up to an increased prioritizing."
In terms of racial breakdown, in the county, the disparity is much smaller than in the city of St. Louis -- but still exists.
Over the last decade, police in the county have on average arrested blacks for marijuana possession about three times more often than whites.
"A disparity of three-to-one is nothing to dismiss," Chasnoff says.
Further, because the numbers overall are rising, that means more people are potentially facing racially biased pot policing, which, the ACLU argues, is ineffective and a waste of money.
"If you have a disparity and you increase the overall numbers, you are increasing the overall number of people that are affected by that disparity," he says.
With this data, it'd be difficult to trace the rise back to a single department. The St. Louis County Police Department only represents about 40 percent of the county, which is why a spokesman tells Daily RFT he would not be able to comment on these broad numbers.
It's worth noting that in the city of St. Louis -- which is considered its own separate county in federal data -- the number of marijuana arrests has actually declined substantially.
Here's the St. Louis county arrest data from the ACLU followed by the full report.
Support Local Journalism.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club
Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.
Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.
Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.