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Where do black teenagers and white middle-agers get busted for drugs at equal rates?

In 1986, more than 8,000 black teenagers were arrested across Los Angeles County for drug offenses. After a steady, steep decline, that number fell to just 400 in 2013. Meanwhile, drug arrests of L.A.’s white middle-agers more than doubled. From the peak arrest year (1986) to the present, a huge shift in racial patterns has emerged:

Source: Criminal Justice Statistics Center, 2013

In the cities of Los Angeles and Compton, once notorious for draconian gang crackdowns, mass street-corner busts, and televised crackhouse raids by police, arrests of black teenagers for drugs plunged by 97 percent (4,729 in 1986; 132 in 2013) as white, over-40 drug arrests surged (616 in 1986; 1,133 in 2013).

In the 1980s, an African American teenager in Los Angeles was 30 times more likely to be arrested for drugs than a white middle-ager. No one admitted aging whites even had a drug problem – despite 6,000 deaths among whites age 40 and older in L.A. from illicit drugs over the last 25 years. (Fewer than 100 L.A. African Americans under age 25 died from illicit drugs during the same period).

Now, an unthinkable new era has arrived: Los Angeles’s white middle-agers are just as likely to get arrested for drugs as black teens. Other races and young ages also show sharp declines, but the black-white and young-old disparities that have long defined drug policing are disappearing – but not completely.

Elsewhere in California, while black teenagers remain 32 percent more likely to be arrested for drugs than middle-aged whites, similar equalizing trends are evident:

Table: Drug arrest rate in California (outside L.A.), Black teenagers vs White middle-agers

Source: Criminal Justice Statistics Center, 2013

California’s seismic shifts are shattering popular theories about crime and drugs in deeply unsettling, often unwanted ways as drug enforcement catches up to drug abuse reality. Powerful agendas, funding schemes, and public relations strategies are threatened.

So far, drug-war interests are responding in the usual way – by remaining stuck in 1992 and 1892, the dismal past when leaders blamed drug crises on feared scapegoat populations and pushed harsh police crackdowns. The Partnership@drugfree.org, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, the Ad Council, and their news-media sycophants continue to peddle the same cartoonish images that never had anything to do with America’s real drug crises.

The rapid aging and whitening of California’s drug abusers and drug arrestees in recent decades is evident in cold statistics. Of those arrested in the 1980s, just 5 percent were over age 40, and 2 percent were over-40 whites. Today, 30 percent are 40 and older, and 15 percent are older whites.

Although unspoken, California’s new drug realities may be the key, hidden motivator for drug policy reforms. Measures substituting decriminalization, treatment and community programs for incarceration are consistent with “medical” notions afforded older whites as opposed to “policing” aimed at younger people of color.

Posted in Blog, Drug Policy

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