Two thirds of Americans believe marijuana should be legalized for recreational use nationwide, according to the Pew Research Center. More than 90 percent of the population supports the prospect of either recreational pot or medical cannabis being legalized.
Such numbers suggest a decline in the stigma surrounding pot use, and may lead some to assume there’s also a corresponding downward trend in the drug’s criminalization.
But a recent release by an Ohio law firm blows that notion up in smoke. Brian Joslyn studied the racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests to identify the states and counties with the most significant inequalities in pot busts. He found that Black people were 97.2 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites in Pickens County, Georgia.
“I couldn’t believe it when I saw it on the graphs,” Joslyn told Atlanta Black Star on Wednesday. “I was shocked. I mean, I knew that the problem existed, but to break it down like that, it’s pretty eye-opening.”
Joslyn’s analysis was based on a study the American Civil Liberties Union released last April showing that nationwide, African-Americans are 3.64 times more likely than whites to face marijuana charges.
ACLU examined marijuana arrests between 2010 and 2018 and found that law enforcement made 6.1 million pot possession arrests over that span, amounting to over 43 percent of all drug arrests. ACLU found that despite a growing number of state legalizing the drug, the number of people locked up for possessing it increased. There were 100,000 more arrests in 2018 than in 2015, the ACLU report indicated.
The organization found that Blacks were jailed more than whites in every state and over 96 counties across the U.S. The ACLU report argued that police often target people based on their race rather than reasonable suspicion.
Joslyn, a criminal defense attorney in Cincinnati, sought to parse the ACLU data to learn where the most glaring disparities existed. He embarked on the effort last year and spent about three months developing an infographic that details the racial gap in arrests for each state.
He’s handled countless cases where police cite the scent of marijuana during traffic stops and use that as a reason to search people’s vehicles. Many times law enforcement personnel discover guns, weapons or large amounts of other drugs when they do the searches. But Joslyn said he routinely sees cases where the officers never find the pot they claimed to have suspected of being present. Yet it’s a way to justify police searches, and his clients often find themselves facing serious felony charges.
Joslyn wanted to create a graphic to illustrate what he sees in the courtroom every day.
“What I noticed, obviously, is just the disparity, that I never really see it occurring as much with white people, and it tends to be more people of color. And it’s very concerning to me,” he said. “I think it’s an unspoken thing that everybody knows that it’s going on, but it’s not talked about. … And I think it’s a cheap shot that’s frequently used, especially in our minority communities, as a way of officers violating people’s Fourth Amendment rights.”
Colorado, one of the first states to legalize pot in 2012, had the lowest disparity. Black people caught with marijuana there are 1.5 times more likely to be arrested than whites. But the gulf deepened in states like Montana (9.6 times) and Kentucky (9.4 times).
But there was a much higher likelihood for Blacks to be arrested even in states that had legalized or decriminalized pot use by 2018, when the data used for the studies was collected. Blacks in Vermont, a state that allowed recreational use in 2018, were 6.1 times more likely to get locked up. And even as lawmakers made Minnesota the another state to decriminalize weed, Blacks remained 5.4 times more likely to face charges for toking up in the Gopher State.
Florida and Washington, D.C. officials do not submit their comprehensive data to the FBI and didn’t provide ACLU with data on their marijuana arrests. Joslyn said he was unable to collect enough data on Mississippi to analyze that state’s marijuana arrests.
The widest margins existed at the county level. In Pickens County in 2018, arrests of African-Americans on pot charges amounted to 31,243 per 100,000 people. Just 321 white people per 100,000 were hauled in on the drug charge that year, marking a nearly 100-to-1 ratio of arrests between the two groups.
U.S. Census records show the Black population in Pickens County was just 2.5 percent in 2018. Whites represented 87 percent of the county’s residents
Blacks were 45.3 times more like to face pot possession charges in DeKalb County, Alabama, the area with the second-highest disparity in 2018.
Joslyn also catalogued the counties with the 50 highest racial gaps and made a graph of the 20 counties that saw the highest increase during the nine-year span.
Joslyn was not aware of any policies or procedures driving the differences in numbers in certain areas. He indicated racism is the underlying reason across the board.
“i’m going to infer that the only way there would be this racial disparity in these arrests is not because there’s so many of the minority population committing crimes, but because they’re being targeted,” Joslyn said.
According to Joslyn, prosecutors in his Ohio county have stopped pursuing pot possession cases. Yet law enforcement continues to make those arrests, even though those charges won’t be prosecuted. Joslyn believes the solution must come in the form of mandates from sheriffs and police chief ordering their officers to no longer search vehicles strictly on the basis of a marijuana odor.
In their study, the ACLU called for marijuana to be fully legalized. Ezekiel Edwards, the nonprofit’s director of the Criminal Law Reform Project, helped author the ACLU report. He said law enforcement agencies continue to enforce marijuana laws and target Black communities most aggressively.
“Criminalizing people who use marijuana needlessly entangles hundreds of thousands of people in the criminal legal system every year at a tremendous individual and societal cost,” Edwards said. “As a matter of racial justice and sound public health policy, every state in the country must legalize marijuana with racial equity at the foundation of such reform.”