There are a couple of troubling patterns in US drug arrests. For one, though marijuana has been decriminalized in much of the USA, marijuana arrest rates are hardly down from five years ago, and higher than 20-30 years ago — see graph at right. Besides that, it’s still mostly black-people and Latinos arrested. And the crime is, 4/5 the of the time, drug possession, not sale.
At the same time that violent crime rates are falling, marijuana possession arrests are rising (see graph below). Currently, according to FBI statistics, more people are arrested for marijuana possession than for all violent crime combined. You’d expect it would not be this way, and a question I’d like to explore is why. But first, let’s look at more data. I note that part of an explanation is that marijuana use is up (18% in 2015 vs 12% in 1990). This still doesn’t explain the racial imbalance but it could explain the general rise. Marijuana isn’t quite legal, and if use is up, you’d expect arrests to be up. But even here, something is fishy: use rates are the same as in 1980, 35+ years ago in the midst of the “war on drugs,” but arrest rates have more than doubled since. Why? Take New York City as an example, 17,762 people were arrested for low-level marijuana possession in 2016 (smoking in public or possession of 25 gm to 2 oz). The low-level arrest rate is twice the national average in this Democratic-bastion city, where the drug was decriminalized years ago. Arrest rates in NYC went up an additional 10% in 2016, with black people arrested at 11 times the rate of white people. How could this be?
The race discrepancy of arrests persists across the US. Though black citizens use drugs only 15% or so more often than whites, and make up only 13% of the US population, they are arrested for drugs about three times as often and incarcerated about 4 times as often. It’s mostly for marijuana possession too, and the discrepancy varies very strongly by location In Louisiana, Illinois, and New York City arrests are particularly weighted to people of color. When New York City police precinct captains were asked about this, they explained that their instructions come from above. It’s a curious answer, I’d say, reflecting perhaps their dislike of the mayor.
One of the race-affecting instructions is that the police are instructed to patrol black neighborhoods, but not the student unions of majority-white colleges like NYU. They’re mandated to stop and search junky cars but not nice ones, and to search people who have outstanding parking tickets, but not generally. They even get raises that depend on the number of tickets given, a practice that does not lead to a pattern of looking the other way — one many New Yorkers would prefer. Another issue: in many states, including New York, the police can keep money or cars, if they can claim that the asset was purchased with drug money or used in the drug trade. This leads to a practice where the city budget benefits when the police arrest persons they don’t expect will be convicted. It’s a practice called civil asset forfeiture, one lampooned, on Last Week Tonight, but jealously guarded. Since it is near impossible to prove that the money or car was not used in any way illegally, once they arrest someone, the police can expect to keep his or her money or cars indefinitely. The annoyance of lawyers perhaps encourages the arrest of people who do not seem to have them — people of color. New York mayor deBlassio justifies his arrests as a way to protect the neighborhoods, as his version of former mayor, Guilliani’s broken window approach. Maybe. But I think the profit motive is at least as relevant.
I note that strict justice tends to land hardest on the poor and defenseless. I also note that many important people have used marijuana without it damaging their lives in any obvious way. Both Jeb! Bush and Bill Clinton claimed to have smoked it; as did Barak Obama, Al Gore, and the Beatles. My bottom line: while marijuana decriminalization is worthwhile, it must go along with the repeal of civil asset forfeiture laws, and other means that make arrests into profit centers – or so it appears to me. Otherwise we’ll keep on flushing lives down the drain for no good reason.
Robert Buxbaum, March 6, 2017. I’ve previously blogged about the structure of criminal sentencing, coming to conclude that the least strict sentence that does the job is to be preferred. I also ran for water commissioner in 2016.