A Drug War in the Time of Color-Blind Policy

If about the same number of black and white Americans report using marijuana, why are more than three times as many blacks arrested for possession?
I don't know that it will come as any surprise to anyone reading here that black people are arrested for marijuana possession a lot more often than white people, despite there being virtually no gap in marijuana usage. Still, this data from a new ACLU report is worth considering:

Marijuana use is roughly equal among Blacks and whites. In 2010, 14% of Blacks and 12% of whites reported using marijuana in the past year; in 2001, the figure was 10% of whites and 9% of Blacks. In every year from 2001 to 2010, more whites than Blacks between the ages of 18 and 25 reported using marijuana in the previous year. In 2010, 34% of whites and 27% of Blacks reported having last used marijuana more than one year ago -- a constant trend over the past decade. In the same year, 59% of Blacks and 54% of whites reported having never used marijuana. Each year over the past decade more Blacks than whites reported that they had never used marijuana.
And now some data on actual arrest rates:

In 2010, nationwide the white arrest rate was 192 per 100,000 whites, and  the black arrest rate was 716 per 100,000 blacks. Racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests are widespread and  exist in every region in the country. In the Northeast and Midwest, Blacks  are over four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession  than whites. In the South, Blacks are over three times more likely, and in  the West, they are twice more likely. In over one-third of the states, Blacks  are more than four times likelier to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites. 

Racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests exist regardless of county household income levels, and are greater in middle income and more affluent counties. In the counties with the 15 highest median household incomes (between $85K-$115K), Blacks are two to eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites. In the 15 counties in the middle of the household income range (between $45K-$46K), Blacks are over three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites. In the poorest 15 counties (median household incomes between $22K-$30K), Blacks are generally 1.5 to five times more likely to be arrested ...
The overall black population has almost nothing to do with this disparity:

For example, in Lycoming and Lawrence, PA, and in Kenton County, KY, Blacks make up less than 5% of the population, but are between 10 and 11 times more likely than whites to be arrested. In Hennepin County, MN (includes Minneapolis), and Champaign and Jackson Counties, IL, Blacks are 12%, 13%, and 15% of the population, respectively, but are 9 times more likely to be arrested than whites. 

In Brooklyn, NY, and St. Louis City, MO, Blacks comprise 37% and 50% of the residents, respectively, and are 12 and 18 times more likely to be arrested than whites. In Chambers, AL, and St. Landry, LA, Blacks account for more than twice as many marijuana arrests (90% and 89%, respectively) than they do of the overall population (39% and 42%, respectively). In Morgan and Pike Counties, AL, Blacks make up just over 12% and 37% of the population, respectively, but account for 100% of the marijuana possession arrests.
The disparity is not getting better, it's getting worse.  Since 1990 arrests for marijuana possession. The increase has not been color-blind:

As the overall number of marijuana arrests has increased over the past decade, the white arrest rate has remained constant at around 192 per 100,000, whereas the Black arrest rate has risen from 537 per 100,000 in 2001 (and 521 per 100,000 in 2002) to 716 per 100,000 in 2010. Hence, it appears that the increase in marijuana arrest rates overall is largely a result of the increase in the arrest rates of Blacks.
The years between 2000 and 2010 do not simply constitute a war on marijuana, but a war on black people who use marijuana. 

A rising wave smashes Negroes first.
Jump to comments
Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Technicolor Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


What Do You Wish You Learned in College?

Ivy League academics reveal their undergrad regrets


Famous Movies, Reimagined

From Apocalypse Now to The Lord of the Rings, this clever video puts a new spin on Hollywood's greatest hits.


What Is a City?

Cities are like nothing else on Earth.


CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.



More in National

From This Author

Just In