Report: Marijuana enforcement unfair to blacks

With Proposition 19 – California’s ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana – struggling in the polls and low on cash for the final weeks of the campaign, the Drug Policy Alliance and the California Conference of the NAACP are rolling out a study tomorrow on how marijuana arrests are racially disproportionate.

The report says that over the past two decades, California made 850,000 arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana, including half a million arrests in the last 10 years. Those arrested were disproportionately African Ameri¬cans and Latinos, overwhelmingly young people, especially young men, the report says: From 2006 through 2008, police in 25 major California cities arrested blacks for low-level marijuana possession at four, five, six, seven and even twelve times the rate of whites, even as U.S. government surveys consistently find that young whites use marijuana at higher rates than young blacks.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger might’ve taken some wind from the sails of this argument for legalization on Sept. 30 by signing into law a bill that reduces possession of up to an ounce of marijuana from a misdemeanor to an infraction, sort of like a traffic ticket but leaving no mark on one’s criminal record.

It has been a misdemeanor punishable only by a $100 fine since 1976, but reducing it to an infraction with the same penalty means those cited are no longer entitled to jury trials and court-appointed attorneys, potentially saving taxpayers millions – one of the criminal-justice costs Prop. 19 had sought to eliminate. The measure’s supporters say this decriminalization doesn’t go far enough, as minority communities still will be disproportionately hit with the $100 tickets.

On hand to release the report tomorrow afternoon – amid the California NAACP’s annual convention at the Oakland Marriott and Convention Center – will be California NAACP State Conference President Alice Huffman, whose early and ardent support of Prop. 19 on the basis of racial discrimination in marijuana enforcement has made waves in the state’s black communities; Drug Policy Alliance California Director Stephen Gutwillig; Law Enforcement Against Prohibition Executive Director Neill Franklin; actor Danny Glover; Prop. 19 proponent and Oaksterdam University President Richard Lee; National NAACP Criminal Justice Program Director Robert Rooks; and former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders. Their press conference will precede a panel discussion on “Lost Communities/Failed Cannabis Prohibition: A Time for Change.”

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.