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Report: Wide racial disparity in marijuana arrests

Protests against racial injustice and police brutality have occurred across the nation this summer, including here in Sioux Falls. We had an incident that started very peacefully but ended up with many individuals charged with serious crimes.  Our marijuana laws may have had a role in those protesting, however, as a recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union is evidence of a significant racial disparity in the American criminal justice system in the enforcement of marijuana laws.

In the report, the ACLU says though attitudes about marijuana have shifted across the country in recent years, arrests for marijuana possession and trafficking continue to be made here in South Dakota and elsewhere – and that Black Americans are much more likely to be busted than whites.  In Sioux Falls, Native Americans have more contact with law enforcement than whites as well.

War on marijuana rages on

The ACLU analyzed data from all states from 2010 to 2018 and reports that “the war on marijuana rages on,” with arrests “still widespread across the U.S.”

South Dakota is the state with the highest marijuana possession arrest rate as of 2018. Per 100,000 residents, 707 were arrested for marijuana possession or trafficking charges that year. That’s more than three times the arrest rate for similar crimes in other states.

South Dakota’s growing emphasis

While many states are placing less emphasis on marijuana arrests, the opposite is true here. In 2010, the South Dakota marijuana possession rate per 100,000 residents was 256. This rate has nearly tripled since then.

The report also finds “extreme racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests” throughout the time period studied. “Black people are 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested for possession,” the ACLU states, even though the two groups have comparable rates of usage.

Disparity does damage

The organization argues that the disparity leads to other problems in the Black community extending beyond arrests, including criminal records that follow people their entire lives, incarceration, and the possibility of “loss of jobs, housing, financial aid eligibility (and) child custody.”

Though marijuana arrests nationally have “trended weakly downward,” the trend reversed in 2016, 2017 and 2018. More people were arrested for marijuana-related crimes in the U.S. in 2018 than in 2015, though more states decriminalized and legalized recreational use during those three years.

Disparity’s recent growth

The data shows that in 2010, the arrest rate per 100,000 Black residents of the U.S. was 659. The arrest rate for whites was 199. The Black/white arrest ratio was 3.31. That disparity grew to 3.64 by 2018, though arrests in both groups were slightly down. In other words, even though fewer people overall arrested for marijuana possession in the U.S. in 2018 than were arrested in 2010, the racial disparity grew.