The Guardian: The war on drugs has become a war on occasional pot smokers of color

A few years ago, a young black man named DeMarcus Sanders got pulled over in Waterloo, Iowa, because a cop thought he was playing music too loud. DeMarcus didn’t expect his car to be searched, or to get arrested when the officer discovered a small amount of marijuana. He also didn’t expect to spend 30 days in jail, or to lose his job, his college credits and his driver’s license for six months – or for DeMarcus and his young son to live with the consequences of a criminal record, forever.

Was DeMarcus the architect of his own misfortune? He did get caught breaking the law, after all. Or is he just another American caught up in a system designed to arrest nearly 750,000 people per year at a cost of nearly $10bn to taxpayers – for the crime of possessing a relatively harmless plant while black?

DeMarcus was one of many people featured in an ACLU report from this time last year highlighting the unprecedented escalation in US marijuana arrests during the previous decade. The racial disparity was extraordinary: White people and black people use marijuana at roughly equal rates, but black people are 3.7 times more likely to be criminalized for doing so.

Ever since, the ACLU and many, many others have been calling for an end to the arcane reality that is America’s prohibition of marijuana, which nearly 40% of the US population admit to having tried – and which a majority of Americans now support legalizing. This past week, the New York Times has been pushing the cause with a series of editorials not just calling for a federal repeal of the ban on pot but also, importantly, calling out the injustice of marijuana arrests.

And that’s the rocky part of the path toward legalization: it’s not going to happen until police departments across the country stop relying on pot arrests as a means of generating money for themselves – and of ensuring that minorities get ensnared in the criminal justice system.

If white people generally, and affluent white people in particular, were not largely exempt from law enforcement’s weed trap, it might be easier to believe lawmakers when they claim pot is a dangerous substance that must be suppressed at all cost.

But marijuana arrests now account for 52% of all drug arrests in the United States – 88% of those were for simple possession. And as Ezekiel Edwards, the chief author of the ACLU report, told me this week, “These arrests were never about marijuana being a gateway drug. They are about controlling communities of color and maintaining a steady flow of federal and state funds into local law enforcement efforts.”

Our multi-billion dollar war on drugs hasn’t just morphed into a war on marijuana – it has become predominately a war on occasional pot smokers of color … and a cash-cow for cops.

In 1988, the US federal government established a fund, currently known as the Justice Assistance Grant (Jag) program, to help local police departments in their anti-drug and other law enforcement efforts. When applying for the so-called Byrne grants, which got a $4bn boost during the recession, agencies must set forth their objectives and goals in measurable terms and demonstrate past success.

So if a police department that has come to rely on Jag dollars to stay afloat can demonstrate it has increased the number of drug-related arrests by a certain percentage in a relatively short amount of time, it might qualify for more funding. Since marijuana arrests tend to be relatively peaceful affairs, it’s not very difficult to follow the money.

“Police officers are incentivized to make as many arrests as possible not just to obtain these grants but also to further their own careers,” says Robin Steinberg, the founder of Bronx Defenders, a group of lawyers that handles about 175 indigent cases each per year. “And as success is measured on the quantity of arrests and not the quality, there is a built-in incentive to go after the easiest targets just to make up numbers.”

What has become a game for some police departments and their enablers is an increasingly harsh reality for the mostly black and Latino men who end up as their pawns. The sight is too frequent, in minority neighborhoods, of cops stopping-and-frisking random passersby, searching young people’s cars, searching their homes – only to bust them for an eighth of weed under a seat cushion.

Bronx Defenders has “thousands upon thousands” of such clients, Steinberg says, and while the charges may not result in significant jail time, the life-time consequences can be more severe than those for the DeMarcuses of America:

“We have a client in family court who is being charged with abuse and neglect because she used marijuana. We had a client in deportation proceedings because he used marijuana. Another client lost his job at the Board of Education for marijuana use. These cases are just the tip of the iceberg.”

What does the federal government have to say about this wasteful and racist mess that it’s helping to pay for? The head of the bureau behind Jag grants and other recession-era funding claims she’s looking into whether the program “is somehow incentivizing agencies to make more low-level arrests”.

But legalization is never just a signature away: “The administration’s position on this has not changed,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday, after the first Times editorial. “We remain committed to treating drug use as a public health issue, not just a criminal justice problem.” This from the mouthpiece of a president who said marijuana is not “more dangerous than alcohol”.

Barack Obama is the only black man in America for whom it is safe to openly admit that he has not just smoked pot – but inhaled it, too. Meanwhile, DeMarcus Sanders owed the state of Iowa $2,346 for playing his music too loud.

By Sadhbh Walshe

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