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Report: Racial gap persists in marijuana arrests possession

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil | 6/12/2013, 3:33 p.m.

So even though Massachusetts has decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, the drug laws that are part of the larger war on crime are so entrenched that reversing course will not happen over night. “It’s going to take much longer to de-escalate that, regardless of what the laws say,” he says.

Still, Harris thinks there should be greater accountability for the persistent racial disparities in drug arrests in the Commonwealth. He explains that shortly after marijuana’s decriminalization in 2009, his son, who was in 5th grade at the time, participated in a DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program at school, which featured presentations from local law enforcement officials. One of them, Harris says, “mocked the law — he was making fun of decriminalization and saying it was bad.

“Something has to happen so that our law enforcement officers are obligated to obey the law, and if the law says that possession of small amounts of marijuana is permitted, there should be consequences for the failure to do so,” he says. “To the extent that the law is being used to harass certain people of color, then that’s not in keeping with the law. We should learn from the data, and if the data tell us that disparities continue, then we need to think of consequences.”

On top of racial discrimination, the ACLU points out that the nation’s marijuana laws have swept a huge number of people into the criminal justice system, putting a tremendous financial burden on the government. In 2010 alone, one person was arrested for marijuana every 37 seconds, costing cash-strapped states more than $3.6 billion. Massachusetts spent more than $9 million enforcing marijuana possession laws in the same year.

The ACLU concludes that the War on Marijuana — like the War on Drugs — is a “failure,” and calls for full legalization for people over the age of 21. Legalization, the report explains, would end the racial targeting that has come along with harsh drug laws, and generate new tax income for states that could be used to fund substance abuse treatment and public health programs, as well as public schools.

Williams agrees. “The problems with safety in our community don’t come from selling two $20-bags of marijuana,” he says. “If we focused on things that work it would be far more beneficial. Any arrest for marijuana need not be a focus for police departments.”