On race, arrests, marijuana and ‘the new Jim Crow’

In Sacramento, black people are arrested 5.7 times more often than white people

Ngaio Bealum is a Sacramento comedian, activist and marijuana expert. Email him questions at ask420@newsreview.com.

Are marijuana arrests really a racial thing?

—Mike Green

Good question. This can be a tricky subject. Let’s start with some numbers: According to a report from the Drug Policy Alliance (“Arresting Blacks for Marijuana in California” www.drugpolicy.org/docUploads/ArrestingBlacks.pdf), white people use marijuana at a higher rate than blacks, but black people are consistently arrested for marijuana possession at a higher rate than white people.

In Sacramento, the report says that while black people are just a little more than 10 percent of the total population, they are 38 percent of the people arrested for marijuana possession. Overall, black people are arrested 5.7 times more often than white people. These numbers are from 2008. Arrest rates may have changed, but I doubt it.

Nationally, black people are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than white people (www.aclu.org/billions-dollars-wasted-racially-biased-arrests#mjanalysis).

Let’s remember that racism was one of the primary factors leading to the prohibition of marijuana. Harry Anslinger, the man leading the charge for cannabis prohibition in the late 1930s, said this: “Most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, jazz musicians, and entertainers. Their satanic music is driven by marijuana, and marijuana smoking by white women makes them want to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and others. It is a drug that causes insanity, criminality, and death—the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.”

Whew. Racist much? We still find this completely false attitude about marijuana causing violence today. According to the autopsy, Michael Brown had marijuana in his system when he was shot and killed in Ferguson, Mo. Many pundits and bloggers have used this information as a reason to suggest that the presence of weed in his system made Brown more prone to violence. Any pot smoker will tell you that marijuana and violence don’t go together. Hell, weed and violence don’t even like each other. Yet the myth that pot causes violence endures.

Maybe I am tripping, but it seems to me that legalizing marijuana would help end racism, or at least the racial disparities in our prison system. Putting someone in jail for marijuana makes no sense and is a waste of resources. Giving law enforcement an excuse to profile and go after people of color (e.g., New York City’s “stop-and-frisk” policy) is not a good idea.

Listen: 61 percent of the people in jail for drug offenses are black or Hispanic, even though all races use and sell drugs at about the same rate. I bet that if the New York Police Department was to stop and frisk all of the stockbrokers on Wall Street, they would run out of room in the jailhouse.

So, you tell me: Are marijuana arrests racially motivated? In her book The New Jim Crow, author Michelle Alexander argues that the “war on some drugs” is really just state-sanctioned racism. In her words: “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” I think she’s right.