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San Francisco: The "Selma" of Drug Policing

In any given year over the last two decades, San Francisco Police Department arrests for simple possession of marijuana have varied by up to 300% over other years. After a 1999 peak (946 arrests), numbers plunged to 357 in 2007, then nearly doubled to 609 in 2008. Why? Who knows? Nobody seriously contends pot smoking varies that radically over time, if the streets' sweet haze densities are any indicator.

What has changed, and radically, is who's getting arrested. In the peak year of 1999, nearly 70% of small-quantity pot arrestees were white (non-Hispanic); by 2008, that proportion had plummeted to 49%. Meanwhile, in 1999, 23% were black; in 2009, 35%. Arrests of citizens labeled as "other race"--the SFPD's uniquely uninformative designation lumping Hispanics, Asians, and "other nonwhites"--rose from 7% in 1999 to 16% in 2008. Did San Francisco white weed-wastage drop by half over the last nine years?

The larger context is that San Francisco consistently has among the lowest levels of marijuana possession arrest in the state, and probably nation. Yet, San Francisco's racial disparities in both marijuana and felony drug arrest rates consistently have been by far the worst in California, with over-arrest of African Americans (particularly black women) compared to their population share much worse than in Los Angeles, Oakland, or any other city. (In fact, there have been years in which San Francisco arrested more black women numerically for drugs than L.A., whose black population is six times larger.) San Francisco's Jim Crow drug policing appears to enjoy the acquiescence (if not tacit support) of city officials, including so-called "human rights" enforcers, evidenced by their continuing indifference even after years of awareness of staggering injustices.

In left-voting but marijuana-mean Marin and Santa Cruz counties, the proportions of Hispanic, black, and young marijuana arrestees have soared since 1999, all to the benefit of older white smokers. Meanwhile, Alameda and Contra Costa counties' pot possession arrests have plunged to all time lows--even as Contra Costa blacks, one in eight misdemeanor marijuana arrestees in 1999, now comprise nearly one in three. What are we to make of this? That massive, race-based pothead migrations have swept the Bay Area, suddenly overwhelming cops in one city while leaving other communities (and their all-night velveeta-nachos dispensers) bereft?

In community after community whose eeny-meeny-miny-mo police statistics we review, the evidence is that law enforcement entrusted with the discretion to arrest people for holding tiny bits of the ubiquitous, mostly harmless weed inevitably will drift toward whimsically erratic arrest tactics targeting the easiest-hanging fruit--the poor, the dark, the young, the outdoors. This may not be a bad-cops issue so much as a reflection of the double standard larger community forces secretly like just fine: to loudly deplore racist drug policing in the streets while basking in the arrest-free comfort of a little quiet blazing in our suites.

Keywords: adult corrections, crime trends, marijuana, Mike Males

Posted in Blog, Drug Policy

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