“We don’t need to treat it like heroin and cocaine,” Burnett said.
The ACLU supports legalization of marijuana and regulation through taxation and licensing. It also supports eliminating criminal and civil penalties for marijuana possession. If those two options are not possible, the ACLU supports punishment for marijuana possession with only civil penalties, which is often referred to as decriminalizing marijuana possession.
The unequal arrests rates are not confined to a single region of the U.S. or in urban areas with larger black populations, the ACLU said. That discrepancy is found throughout the country, regardless of the size of the black population of the location and at all income levels, the data shows.
For example, in Morgan County, Ala., where African Americans represent 12 percent of the population and Pike County, Alabama, where 37 percent of the population is black, all those arrested for marijuana possession were black, the ACLU found.
African Americans living in counties with the highest median household incomes, $85,000 to $115,000, are two to eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites. In counties with median household incomes of $22,000 to $30,000, the arrest rate for blacks is 1.5 times to five the rate as for whites, the report said.
The largest disparities were found in: Iowa, where blacks were 8.34 times more likely to be arrested than whites; Washington, D.C., 8.05 times greater; Minnesota, 7.81 times; Illinois, 7.56; Wisconsin, 5.98; Kentucky, 5.95 and Pennsylvania, 5.19 times greater.
Blacks face these greater chances for arrest for marijuana possession at a time when Colorado and Washington have legalized adult possession of small amounts of nonmedical marijuana, while a number of states and Washington, D.C. allow medical marijuana. Federal law still prohibits its use. Some states and some cities have eased punishments for possession of smaller amounts.
The findings are hardly surprising to the African American community.
Ben Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, said arrest disparities like those for marijuana possession have led to mass incarceration and criminalization of African Americans, which in turn, has become the new Jim Crow, referring to laws that sanctioned racial segregation in schools and public facilities.
“Any arrest, even for marijuana, is a blot on someone’s record and an impediment to future jobs and opportunities,” Jealous said. “For these reasons, a number of NAACP state conferences (chapters) have supported the decriminalization of marijuana.”