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Two provocative papers issued by CJCJ this month find that despite racial progress in other areas, American authorities’ historical campaign to associate taboo drugs, particularly marijuana, with Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos,” and other minorities (U.S. Commissioner of Narcotics Harry Anslinger, 1936) remains powerful in 2010. CJCJ’s first paper analyzes new criminal justice, health, and drug monitoring agency statistics to document that California operates a separate, harshly unequal marijuana criminal justice system” for African Americans and another, far more lenient system for all other races. African Americans, just 6% of the state’s population and an estimated 10% of its marijuana users, comprise a staggering 45% of the 1,600 Californians imprisoned for marijuana, including more than half of those locked up for marijuana felonies. 

Blacks are nearly 4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than other races, a racial gap only slightly wider than for other crimes. But after African Americans enter California’s Black marijuana system,” disparities multiply more than for any other offense. Seven in 10 Black marijuana arrestees are charged with felonies, compared to one-fifth for other races. Blacks convicted of marijuana felonies are 3 times more likely to be sent to prison than Nonblack marijuana felons. The upshot of these accumulating discriminations is that Blacks wind up being imprisoned for marijuana at 8 times the rate of Hispanics and 18 times the rate of Whites. At older ages, the Black-Nonblack marijuana imprisonment gap soars to nearly 4,000%.

No other offense (including violent, property, and other crimes) and no other drug (including heroin, methamphetamine, and crack) even remotely displays the huge racial discrepancies in imprisonment for marijuana. Yet, authorities seem indifferent to compelling proof of the systemic racism surrounding this drug. It’s as if locking up African Americans for marijuana at 13 times the rate of other races, or sending Black marijuana arrestees to prison at triple the rate of other equivalent marijuana offenders, means California’s criminal justice system is operating exactly as intended.

Why do such enormous criminal justice system inequalities in handling marijuana occur? One clue may lie in two statistical mysteries: Blacks convicted of felony sale of marijuana are more likely to be imprisoned than Blacks convicted of felony sale of harder drugs like heroin or crack, while Blacks convicted of misdemeanor marijuana possession are less likely to be imprisoned than Nonblacks convicted of the same offense. 

These puzzling anomalies suggest that large racial discrepancies in marijuana enforcement may be inherent in the criminalization of a popular drug in widespread use by mainstream populations. Black marijuana sellers may be perceived as victimizing millions of mainstream Californians (especially Whites) who use the drug, while Black hard-drug sellers and drug possessors are perceived merely as victimizing narrower, more stigmatized communities of color. In short, it’s the perceived low status and menace of the drug seller combined with the perceived higher status and innocence of the drug consumer that produces the harshest punishments, similar to the highly racialized pattern governing application of the death penalty.

Along with the systemic biases behind it, marijuana policing and excessive punishment of Black offenders is steadily worsening. Reflecting increasing federal drug policy and consequent law enforcement obsession with marijuana, California’s marijuana arrests more than doubled over the last 20 years as arrests for all other offenses, including for other drugs, fell sharply. In 1990, marijuana offenses comprised just 1.1% of California’s arrests; in 2009, 3.2% – including 6.2% of arrests of African Americans. The size and structure of the racial disparities in today’s rising law enforcement campaign and punishment surrounding marijuana remain rooted in traditional racial fears that must be confronted before meaningful reforms can be implemented.