We’ve talked about the inherently racist nature of drug policy quite a bit, but several things brought it to the front of my mind again today.
First, Stephen Gutwillig has an excellent piece in CNN Opinion: Pot acceptable? Not for young and nonwhite
Pot is indeed flourishing in the mainstream as never before, but the sometimes giddy discussion overlooks a sinister parallel phenomenon: More people are being arrested for pot crimes than ever; they are increasingly young and disproportionately nonwhite. […]
Most striking, the marijuana arrest rate in the United States has nearly tripled since 1991. […]
How can the notion that marijuana is “here to stay” coexist with these rates of marijuana arrests? Apparently because the people caught in the crossfire aren’t considered part of the mainstream. In California, African-Americans are three times as likely as whites to be arrested for a pot crime, according to the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice. If you’re young and nonwhite, you are especially targeted.
The increase in marijuana possession arrests of California teenagers of color since 1990 is quadruple that group’s population growth.
It’s an important aspect of drug policy that we can never forget, and one of the many important reasons to push for legalization.
Jacob Sullum at Reason mentions a discussion by John McWhorter regarding books on race that have been under-appreciated, including Ethan Brown’s book (which I am embarrassed to say I have not yet picked up): Snitch: Informants, Cooperators, and the Corruption of Justice. In the discussion McWhorter said something very powerful, that I think is true:
If there were no War on Drugs, I sincerely believe that within a single generation, there would be no perceptible â€œcrisis in black America,â€ and this book shows much of why thatâ€™s true. The War on Drugs turns whole neighborhoods against the copsâ€”with no discernible benefit after more than 30 years.
Sullum follows that quote up with one from The Wire co-creator David Simon:
Look. For 35 years, you’ve…marginalized a certain percentage of your population, most of them minority, and placed them in a situation where the only viable economic engine in their hypersegregated neighborhoods is the drug trade. Then you’ve alienated them further by fighting this draconian war in their neighborhoods, and not being able to distinguish between friend or foe and between that which is truly dangerous or that which is just illegal. And you want to sit across the table from me and say ‘What’s the solution?’ and get it in a paragraph? The solution is to undo the last 35 years, brick by brick. How long is that going to take? I don’t know, but until you start it’s only going to get worse.
Interestingly, today I received a copy of a new book by A. Rafik Mohamed and Erik D. Fritsvold: Dorm Room Dealers: Drugs and the Privileges of Race and Class
I haven’t had time to read the whole thing, but from a first skim it’s quite interesting, following the lives and adventures of actual white college student pot dealers, and observing their relative immunity from significant law enforcement targeting, particularly compared to their non-white counterparts on the streets in town.
This is not to say that white college students don’t get arrested (I’ve personally known a few). But the fact is, Rachel Hoffman is the exception, not the rule.
I was caught by a particular passage in the conclusion:
Because of the relationships we established with some of the dealers […] we were fortunately able to remain in contact with or otherwise keep track of several of the dealers […]
Across the board, none […] is presently involved in illicit drug sales, at least not in any substantial way. […] the majority of our former dealers have matured out of crime and are living the “traditional” lives they, their families, and society at large always assumed they would fall into. Unquestionably, this maturation process was made far easier by their lack of formal interaction with the criminal justice system and being formally labeled a drug dealer.
Interestingly, though, the entrepreneurial savvy and spirit of capitalism that were essential assets in many of their illicit businesses are currently evident in their endeavors as they have crossed over to become full-time actors in the lawful economy.
So the black youth on the street corner ends up with a lot of experience in the criminal justice system (from the wrong side), and the white youth in the dorm room gains valuable entrepreneurial experience.
Sure, there are some pretty gross generalizations going on here, but that doesn’t prevent them from being statistically true.