*This post is part of our two-week symposium on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system.
In their influential 1970 study of marijuana prohibition in the United States, Richard J. Bonnie and Charles H. Whitebread found that “racial prejudice” was the “most prominent” factor in the passage of early marijuana prohibition laws. When states began passing these laws in the first few decades of the 1900s, it was not uncommon to see legislatures expressly link marijuana prohibition with race.
Reporting on a1929 hearing on a marijuana prohibition bill in Montana, for example, the Montana Standard told readers:
“There was fun in the House Committee during the week when the Marihuana bill came up for consideration. Marihuana is Mexican opium, a plant used by Mexicans and cultivated by Indians. ‘When some beet field peon takes a few rares of this stuff,’ explained Dr. Fred Fulsher of Mineral County, ‘He thinks he has just been elected president of Mexico so he starts out to execute all his political enemies. I understand that over in Butte where the Mexicans often go for the winter they stage imaginary bullfights in the ‘Bower of Roses’ or put on tournaments for the favor of ‘Spanish Rose’ after a couple of whiffs of Marihuana.’ Everybody laughed and the bill was recommended for passage.”
It is rare to see anyone rely on anything approaching this sort of overt racism in the debate over marijuana laws today. Indeed, nearly everyone ― prohibitionists and legalization advocates alike ― agrees that racial disparities in marijuana enforcement (and drug enforcement more broadly) are undesirable. Most also acknowledge the issue is a cause for real concern and action.
And yet, disparities in marijuana enforcement persist. A 2013 ACLU report found that blacks are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as whites, even though the two groups use marijuana at roughly equal rates. In New York City, Mayor de Blasio called racial bias in marijuana arrests “wrong and unjust” during his campaign. But the first months of his administration saw even more total marijuana possession arrests than before, with an alarming racial divide: 86 percent of the people arrested were black or Latino and only 10 percent were white.
Why is it so hard to address the disproportionate impact of marijuana arrests on communities of color despite widespread acknowledgement that it is a serious problem? A lot of it has to do with the way marijuana investigations are initiated and the decentralized nature of law enforcement in the United States.