By Kelli M. Evans
Every year tens of thousands of people in California are arrested for simply possessing small amounts of marijuana. These arrests overload our already stressed courts and jails. They also divert scarce public safety dollars that could be used to address violent crime. California’s Proposition 19, on the November 2010 ballot, offers a remedy that will move marijuana policy in a direction that makes sense. The California Legislative Analyst’s Office explains that the passage of Proposition 19 would allow redirection of court and law enforcement resources to solving violent crimes.
The ballot measure would allow adults age 21 and older to possess and grow small amounts of their own marijuana for personal use, and would allow cities and counties to regulate and tax commercial sales. Unless individual cities and counties enact local regulatory structures, marijuana sale would remain illegal under state law. Similarly, driving while intoxicated will remain against the law, and employers will retain the right to regulate drug use on the job.
Proposition 19 has a growing coalition of support. The three California affiliates of the American Civil Liberties Union recently announced their endorsement of the initiative and join a broad coalition of this common sense approach to controlling marijuana, including former U.S. Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders, the California NAACP, labor unions, and law enforcement officials from around the state.
Enforcement of marijuana prohibition laws consumes California’s police and court system resources, and has a devastating disproportionate impact on communities of color. In 2008 alone, California police made 60,000 marijuana possession arrests, the majority of them young men of color. The arrests don’t indicate actual marijuana usage. A new report from the Drug Policy Alliance reveals distinct racial disparities in California arrests for low-level marijuana possession. Data in the report reveal that African Americans in California are more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, but more white youth use marijuana than black youth. Other reports, including a study out of Seattle, show that whites sell drugs at similar – and possibly higher – rates than African Americans.
In Los Angeles County alone, the marijuana possession arrest rate of African Americans is more than 300% higher than the same arrest rate of whites, although blacks made up less than 10% of the county’s population, according to the DPA report.
The significant racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests have serious consequences, for young men of color in particular. The impact of a misdemeanor conviction for marijuana possession creates barriers to finding a house, a job, and even a school loan.
We need a solution that will work. By regulating and taxing marijuana for adults, Proposition 19 is a step in the right direction.
Kelli M. Evans is Associate Director at the ACLU of Northern California