(LA Times) According to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ), the arrest rate for all offenses in California sank by 40% from 1990 to 2008, with arrests for rape and murder falling by more than 60% each. Drug possession arrests for everything but marijuana collectively fell by nearly 30% in the same period. Meanwhile, arrests for marijuana possession have skyrocketed — up 127%. This rise in marijuana arrests is the ultimate outlier.
California made a major step toward decriminalizing low-level pot possession in 1975, when it made possession of less than an ounce a misdemeanor punishable with a fine and no jail time. That didn’t stop law enforcement from arresting more than 74,000 people last year — the highest number since the 1975 law took effect. More than 80% of those arrests were for misdemeanor possession, the lowest-level offense.
Not surprisingly, given the way drug laws are traditionally enforced in this country, the burden has fallen disproportionately on people of color, and on young black men in particular. According to the CJCJ, half of California’s marijuana possession arrestees were nonwhite in 1990 and 28% were under age 20. Last year, 62% were nonwhite and 42% were under age 20. Marijuana possession arrests of youth of color rose from about 3,100 in 1990 to about 16,300 in 2008 — an arrest surge 300% greater than the rate of population growth in that group.
Even more disturbing, African Americans account for an even higher portion of all marijuana felony arrests. Blacks make up less than 7% of the state population but 22% of people arrested for all marijuana offenses and 33% of all marijuana felony arrests. More African Americans are arrested in California for marijuana felonies than are whites, even though whites are six times more represented in the state population.
The overrepresentation of African Americans is not explained by use rates. According to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the percentage of African Americans and whites who use marijuana over any 30-day period are similar. However, for the 18-25 age group — which constitutes a substantial proportion of marijuana arrests — African Americans regularly use marijuana at rates lower than whites (16.5% and 18.4%, respectively), indicating that their overrepresentation may be even more profound.
These statistics would be shocking if one wasn’t aware of the roots of marijuana prohibition. It has always been about harassing and controlling the “undesirable” populations from the moment the first anti-Mexican immigrant pot prohibitions were passed a century ago in El Paso. The term “marihuana” itself is Mexican slang, used to give the innocuous-sounding hemp plant a more evil-sounding name. As black jazz musicians popularized marijuana use in the ’20s and ’30s, yellow journalist William Randolph Hearst and first “drug czar” Harry J. Anslinger were quick to leverage racism in their demonization of a plant:
“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others. … Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.” — Harry J. Anslinger, America’s 1st Drug Czar (FDR – JFK)
“Marihuana is a short cut to the insane asylum. Smoke marihuana cigarettes for a month and what was once your brain will be nothing but a storehouse of horrid specters. Hasheesh makes a murderer who kills for the love of killing out of the mildest mannered man who ever laughed at the idea that any habit could ever get him…. Marihuana influences Negroes to to look at white people in the eye, step on white men’s shadows and look at a white woman twice.” — William Randolph Hearst, Newspaper Tycoon (1936)
Lest you think that kind of talk died out after Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement of the ’60s, check out President Nixon’s rationalization for the War on Drugs, first from the Nixon Tapes, and second as explained to Chief of Staff, H. R. Haldeman (from Halderman’s diaries):
“I want a Goddamn strong statement on marijuana, I mean one that just tears the ass out of them. You know, it’s a funny thing, every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish…. You have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this all while not appearing to.” — Richard M. Nixon, Former US President