Pot Acceptable? Not for Young and Nonwhite

This year is a watershed year in pot politics.

The Obama administration recently announced it would defer to state medical marijuana laws and stop federal prosecutions of patients and providers who comply with them.

In California, the tanking economy inspired Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to call for debating marijuana taxation and regulation, a bill was introduced in Sacramento to do just that, and four separate ballot initiatives are circulating to allow voters the chance to decide the issue for themselves.

Schwarzenegger’s position was echoed by New York Gov. David Paterson and by Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, who suggested legalizing pot could cripple Mexican and U.S. gangs. The unprecedented momentum to question marijuana prohibition is being fueled by a widely remarked-upon phenomenon — the cultural mainstreaming of marijuana.

From Showtime’s established hit “Weeds” to the “Is Pot Already Legal?” cover of Fortune magazine in September, marijuana is commanding attention and an odd kind of respect for its sheer popularity and massive revenues.

Marie Claire magazine and the “Today Show” profiled “stiletto stoners,” stressed-out women professionals who unwind with a doobie instead of a cosmo. And in a recent style feature, the Los Angeles Times gushed that “cannabis culture is coming out of the closet,” citing its ubiquity across the spectrum of pop culture and high-end design. “It’s here to stay,” the Times proclaimed.

Pot is indeed flourishing in the mainstream as never before, but the sometimes giddy discussion overlooks a sinister parallel phenomenon: More people are being arrested for pot crimes than ever; they are increasingly young and disproportionately nonwhite.

In 2008, the police arrested 847,864 people nationwide for marijuana violations, according to the 2008 FBI Uniform Crime Report. Pot arrests represent fully half of all drug arrests reported in the United States. The overwhelming majority — a whopping 89 percent — were charged with possession only.

Most striking, the marijuana arrest rate in the United States has nearly tripled since 1991.

Examples from both coasts illustrate this. In California, according to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, crime arrest rates have generally plummeted statewide from 1990 to 2008 by an average of 40 percent. Drug possession arrests for everything but marijuana collectively fell by nearly 30 percent. But during that same 18-year period, arrests for marijuana possession in California skyrocketed 127 percent. In 2008, more Californians were arrested for pot offenses than any year since decriminalization took effect 34 years ago.

Similarly, New York state decriminalized simple marijuana possession in the 1970s. But under Mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, New York City has become one of the marijuana arrest capitals of the world — 40,300 arrests last year.

In the years between 1997 and 2008, the NYPD made 12 times as many pot possession arrests as in the previous 12 years, according to a study by the New York Civil Liberties Union.

How can the notion that marijuana is “here to stay” coexist with these rates of marijuana arrests? Apparently because the people caught in the crossfire aren’t considered part of the mainstream. In California, African-Americans are three times as likely as whites to be arrested for a pot crime, according to the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice. If you’re young and nonwhite, you are especially targeted.

The increase in marijuana possession arrests of California teenagers of color since 1990 is quadruple that group’s population growth.

In New York City, blacks and Latinos — who represent about half the city’s population — accounted for 86 percent of everyone charged with pot possession in 2008. The NYCLU report says federal studies show young whites use marijuana at higher rates than blacks and Latinos.

Supporters of marijuana prohibition often argue that few possession busts lead to incarceration. First, that argument ignores the countless parolees and probationers sent back to jail and prison nationwide for failing drug tests or being caught with a joint. And it seriously diminishes the lifelong stigma any criminal conviction has for many young people of color, whose educational and professional opportunities are severely curtailed as a result of racist enforcement.

Getting caught with a joint means being photographed, fingerprinted and permanently entered in the vast criminal database. Apparently marijuana serves as a gateway after all, feeding young people into the criminal justice system and on to a marginalized adulthood.

Widespread discussion of everyday marijuana consumption is helping turn the tide against decades of failed marijuana prohibition. However, too much of that conversation is ignoring the people most impacted by our punitive policies.
We must end pot prohibition and stop the massive number of arrests and biased enforcement that are at its core.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Gutwillig.

Stephen Gutwillig is the California state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization working to promote alternatives to the federal war on drugs.

– Article from CNN.



  1. Sour Shoes on

    WTF, Why would you put an advertisement here. Especially, a sneaker advertisement.

  2. Anonymous on

    I am sad because I now have the right to destroy those who seek to destroy innocent lives because of cannabis prohibition (something that is currently being grown to clean up Chernobyl). I believe in doing unto others as I would myself and therefore if I was harming people illogically (like the cops and the law with cannabis prohibition) then I would myself want to be destroyed –because no monster that actively hurts people deserves to live –thus do unto others. That means every police officer, judge, and DA who practices the destruction of the innocent would not mind me or you destroying them to protect the rights of myself, them (deceased or not), others, their children, their neighbors, their family and their country. Sadly we have to destroy all cannabis prohibition participating law enforcement officers out of fear that they one day will arrest one for a Bible, a Star of David, a Koran, a Conservative or Liberal ideology etc . . . we cannot afford to allow individuals to live whom are merely doing their job when said job is destructive and debilitating the community . . . killing the police will prove less destructive than all those wrongfully punished by them and because eventually they will say no more to arresting and destroying the innocent because they themselves do not want to all die. If they chose to continue and keep on ‘only doing their job’ then it is up to us to stop them by any means necessary –I don’t think a cop would enjoy knowing that they are going to be dying for a drug until said time that they chose to stop enforcing it: that means those who are willing to do such a thing need to be methodical about the death and disposal of their bodies so the innocent and necessary vigilante doesn’t get a bogus murder charge when it is nothing less or more than self defense. We have to kill them unless they are willing or we are capable of placing them in a make-shift prison. We know that a bad law is not a real law and those who practice the enforcement of a bad law are bad people and are no longer real police and that means if our government doesn’t recognize the right of the cops (whom many are not real if they practice prohibiton) to be punished by imprisonment –then we know that real courts, real laws and real correctional facilities do not yet exist and we can bomb said building and people for the overall safety of the world –just like we were allowed to bomb the Nazi government because they were not real and thus a threat when they chose not to end ‘the doing of their job’. Nazis eventually stopped ‘doing their legal job or fake legal job’ once too many of them lost their lives. In a few years this should be planned out and practiced so we can save our countries whom might one day use cops to their advantage (based on the precedent) when controlling a state that we –the people fear and not like. But then again –they are only doing their job –like the Nazis. The difference is that the cops don’t have the job yet of killing their prisoners like the Nazis did –only incarcerating. This is not a slippery slope argument cause of the historical facts behind such illogical and inhumane law enforcement whom are ‘only doing their jobs’. We also need to let the law know why we are imprisoning or killing them so it is clear that it is proper and suitable punishment that they have every right to have inflicted on them by the people and not merely as revenge because revenge is MINE THUS SAYETH THE LORD. This will help the police by reestablishing the link of ‘Protecting and Serving’ the people. And this is why police want to be police and therefore they accept cleansing to save their very own souls and freedom in the long run.

  3. David on

    To assume all blacks fluant there drug use is ignorant. As a black adult from the suburbs I never flaunt my use of cannabis. I choose to grow my own, and only smoke in my house. The reason more minorities are arrested than whites is because the cops go into poor gang infested areas looking to bust people. Almost every car they stop they’ll search, because in those areas everyone is assumed to be a gang member to them until proven otherwise. When they do bust someone. Most of those people can not afford a lawyer, and court costs. Also one of the rules of those areas is to not flaunt nice clothes, money, jewelry, or drugs because someone is always willing to kill you for it. So I don’t know where you get your information from.

  4. adam on

    What is ‘flaunting’? Its use is subjective and while most of us will correctly assume what you mean, it’s something that you decide is happening only when you decide you see it. You may be noticing these people because they are different than you. I notice every black person I see but not every white person I see. I’m not afraid of them, it’s just that I grew up where everyone was white, so black people they stand out when I see them.
    You might be noticing a person’s skin before you understand what they are doing, if you make sure you are conscious of which you notice first, you may realize that exactly what you call flaunting is going on in places you don’t see it.

  5. Anonymous on

    Not to sound racist or ageist. But it has been my experience that blacks and young people are just more blatant about the sale and use of marijusna than the average, white, adult marijuana smoker. This is just my judgement call. But it seems to me the people who flaunt the use of cannabis are disproportionally black and/or young.

  6. david dickinson on

    Apparently much the same thing is happening in Canada as in the United States, but instead of blacks and hispanics, it’s Canada’s aboriginal people who are targetted for crimes that middle class white people regularly get away with. The people being arrested and sent to jail for tiny amounts of marijuana are not the type of citizen to complain to the Chief Judge, write letters to their MP, or take part in political activities. So, I thank the Canadian government for putting Malmo-Levine and Emery in jail as this is precisely what is needed to galvanize the middle class.

    Whether Canada or the US, law enforcement has abandoned fighting violent crime in favour of fighting the political crime of marijuana. The pro-violence attitude of our governments and courts is despicable on both sides of the border. The job of police should be to make our communities safer, not more dangerous. Law enforcement has abandoned violent crime and our jails are instead being filled with non-violent offenders who haven’t hurt anyone. So much for “public safety.”