Dubious war: Blacks suffer a disparity in marijuana arrest rates

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Ever since President Richard Nixon declared a "war on drugs," one misguided policy after another has distorted the criminal justice system. With more than 2 million people behind bars, the United States has the dubious distinction of jailing more of its citizens than any other country on the planet.

The vast majority of those languishing behind bars are there due to draconian drug laws. The crude racial bias undergirding these laws is on display when the rate of blacks arrested for marijuana possession is compared to the rate for whites.

Recently the American Civil Liberties Union released a study that found the arrest rate for African-Americans possessing marijuana was almost four times greater than that of whites, despite comparable drug use. The study covered drug arrests in 2010. The general increase in arrests for blacks for the decade beginning in 2001 was attributable to marijuana possession.

On their face, the statistics are mind-boggling. In 2001, African-Americans were arrested at a rate of 537 per 100,000; in 2010, the rate had jumped to 716 per 100,000. During the same period, whites were arrested at a rate of 191 out of 100,000 in 2001, but the rate inched up only to 192 per 100,000 nine years later.

Why the disparity? Is there an uneven application of the law?

Despite those wildly different arrest rates, more whites -- 460,808 -- were arrested for marijuana possession in 2010, compared to 286,117 blacks, but then whites represent 73 percent of the population.

Police insist that they aren't being biased, but how do they account for the wide disparity in arrest rates when usage is about the same? The statistics raise suspicions about how laws are enforced, how police are deployed and whether justice is unfairly dispensed. Perhaps it's time to revisit the drug war itself and ask if the United States should continue down this road.



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