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Racial disparities in arrest practices merit closer attention

Nationally, African Americans are 4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana use than their white counterparts, despite using the drug at approximately the same rate, according to a new report. Locally, the study found that while San Francisco exhibits low arrest rates for marijuana use, it also claims some of the highest racial disparities in drug law enforcement in the nation.

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Photo by .v1ctor. | flickr creative commons

The War on Marijuana in Black and White, released June 4, 2013 by the American Civil Liberties Union, finds the United States wastes billions of dollars in pursuit of small-time marijuana users, resulting in no significant public safety benefit and no reduced marijuana use, while causing a great deal of harm to our communities.

San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr responded to the ACLU report on June 5, 2013, clarifying that the Police Department does not engage in racial profiling, and that the number of marijuana arrests in the city are too small to substantiate the trends. This statement provides welcome transparency into SFPD policies, although it does not explain the larger underlying trends. In 2010, SB 1449 (Leno) reduced simple marijuana possession for adults and youth to an infraction. In 2012, CJCJ found that the law contributed to a 61 percent reduction in marijuana possession arrests of youth in its first year, and contributed to a 20 percent drop in youth arrests overall.

Yet, while the SFPD makes very few arrests for marijuana possession (11 arrests in 2010), CJCJ has found similar results across all drug offenses. San Francisco’s high rate of African American drug arrests began in the mid-1990’s, and has been well publicized. Yet very little has been done to explain or ameliorate these trends.

The ACLU report concludes with detailed recommendations, tailored to account for various political inclinations that fall into three categories: legalize, de-penalize, or decriminalize. In San Francisco, the sheriff, district attorney, and chief of probation are all examining their policies and practices to identify and reduce disproportionate minority contact (DMC) with the justice system. As the first point of contact, the SFPD could do a lot more to examine its arrest trends, rather than simply claiming it does not create these trends deliberately.

In a January 2013 Police Commission hearing, Chief Suhr indicated willingness to provide data and transparency regarding more recent drug arrest practices. This is a move in the right direction. Whether or not the SFPD are engaging in racial profiling may be a moot point. As the African American population of San Francisco continues to dwindle, even small numbers of disproportionate arrests hurt our community.

Keywords: law enforcement, marijuana, racial disparities, San Francisco, Selena Teji

Posted in Blog, Drug Policy

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