The 3.6 Billion Dollar Nickel Bag

Weed. Ganja. Yerba Buena. Pot. President Barack Obama admits to having smoked it in his younger days like President Bill Clinton before him. While we have long since known that those of us who look like the current POTUS are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana-related offenses than our White counterparts, a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union reveals just how devastating those disparities can be. 

The War on Marijuana in Black and White: Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests is the first comprehensive study of marijuana possession and arrest rates by race for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Marijuana arrests now account for over half of all drug arrests in the United States, with marijuana possession arrests alone making up nearly half (46%) of all drug arrests. In 2010, there was one marijuana arrest every 37 seconds, and states spent over $3.6 billion enforcing marijuana possession laws that year alone.

The waste of taxpayers’ dollars on policing a drug that a majority of Americans support legalizing is bad enough, but the racial disparities are stark and should sound the alarm against the marijuana-to-prison pipeline. In spite of evidence that finds that Whites are equally or more likely to take drugs than Blacks, we are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than Whites. These arrests exist in all regions of the country, in counties large and small, urban and rural, wealthy and poor and with large and small Black populations.

EBONY.com spoke with the report's lead author,  Ezekiel Edwards, Director of the Criminal Law Reform Project with the ACLU.

EBONY: Why did the ACLU decide to do this report?

Ezekiel Edwards: We were concerned about the failed War on Drugs and the toll that it has taken on people in this country, particularly people of color. We knew that marijuana plays a significant role in that war. We also knew from the New York state data that there were a lot of marijuana arrests in New York and that they were disproportionately 86%, people of color, so we were curious to see if that was happening elsewhere in the country and what we found to our dismay is that this was happening all over the United States. We found that Blacks are 4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites nationwide, despite the fact that Black and Whites use marijuana at almost the same rates. In virtually every county in America whether the Black population is 2% or 60%, whether the median income was 100k or 20k, everywhere we looked, Blacks are more likely to be arrested and that was startling to us.

EBONY: You say the War on Marijuana is about "over-policing."  Can you explain?

EE: Between 2001 and 2010, there were over 8 million marijuana arrests in the United States. Nine out of 10 of these arrests are for marijuana possession and this policy is being racially enforced. Marijuana arrests have serious consequences. There are over 20,000 people who are serving state prison for marijuana possession. When one is stopped and frisked, first and foremost, it is a humiliating, intrusive experience. What happens when you get a marijuana arrest and conviction? First, people do spend time in jail for marijuana possession which is disruptive. Conviction can cause loss of employment, difficulty in getting future employment, a loss of student financial aid, losing housing and housing eligibility, losing parental rights, and can have consequences for immigrants and permanent residents [alike.]

[Following] a marijuana conviction, if you are ever picked up for something else, you can now be considered a recidivist and it makes future punishment significantly worse. There are people serving life without parole when the triggering offense was a non-violent marijuana conviction.

EBONY: Can you tell us which states and or counties have the highest racial disparities in marijuana arrests?

EE: In Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and Washington, D.C. Blacks are 8 times more likely to be arrested. Kentucky and Wisconsin: 6 times more likely, Pennsylvania: 5 times more likely. If you then look at certain significant counties, like Brooklyn, NY and Grand Rapids, MI, it's 9 times more likely, and DeKalb County in GA, 7 times more likely. So, you see, these rates are high. We even found counties like Van Zandt, TX where Blacks were 34 times more likely to be arrested.

EBONY: I was also shocked to discover the amount of money that states are spending enforcing marijuana possession—New York State spends 678 million dollars, California spends 490 million dollars a year?

EE: In 2010 alone, states spent a total of over 3.6 billion dollars enforcing marijuana laws. That’s what they spend policing it, handling judicial costs and then correction/jail costs.

EBONY: What do you think are two of the most important recommendations from the report?

EE: The ACLU recommends that marijuana be legalized for