The War on Weed: Still Expensive, Racist, and Failed

By Matt Taylor


Photo via Flickr User Taber Andrew Bain

For years, anti-drug-war advocates have been saying, over and over again, that arresting people for possessing controlled substances overcrowds prisons, wastes resources, and destroys communities. Yet little has changed at the federal level. In fact, during Obama’s first three years as president, the arrest rate for marijuana possession was about 5 percent higher than the average rate under George W. Bush. At a certain point, you have to stop being subtle, which might be why the American Civil Liberties Union’s new study on the “war on marijuana” doesn’t fuck around: “Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests,” it announces in big, unambiguous letters right at the top.

The report—touted as the first comprehensive look at statistics on marijuana-related arrests in all 50 states—finds that enforcement of pot prohibition has been an even costlier and more racially charged nightmare than originally suspected. The data shows that over 8 million marijuana-related arrests were made between 2001 and 2010, costing taxpayers billions of dollars every year and branding many black youths as criminals, though they smoke pot at rates equal to their white peers. Indeed, the study finds that blacks are nearly four times as likely as whites to face arrest for pot-related offenses (and eight times as likely in some states, like Iowa).

But what’s most outrageous about these new numbers is that rather than going down during the past decade, pot arrests actually surged, driven almost entirely by a spike in arrests of black offenders, while pot use has increased slightly. Which is to say that this “war” is proving to be ineffective at the same time it sucks up more and more cash—and its racial bias is becoming increasingly obvious. This has nothing to do with the will of the people, who hypothetically are in charge of the government in a democracy. In 2010, there was one marijuana arrest every 37 seconds, even though a Gallup poll would go on to find a majority of Americans in favor of outright legalization just one year later. Americans, to their credit, don’t care as much about pot use as they once did. Problem is, the cops still care, motivated, the ACLU report’s authors suggest, by COMPSTAT and other statistics-driven police tactics that emphasize arrest quotas and aggressively honing in on minor offenses. The rise of the “broken windows” theory of crime, in other words, has had some scary, institutionally racist consequences, and not just in big cities, but in rural counties with barely any black residents as well.

It’s likely that you were already aware on some level that the war on marijuana is a racist disaster—ending the war on drugs has become such a mainstream cause in the past few years that a recent petition was signed by a host of A-list celebrities. The ACLU’s report highlights, yet again, why the decriminalization and legalization of weed is necessary—and yet it’s hard to imagine a single document, even one as thorough and damning as this, doing much to upend drug policy in America. But what’s interesting about the timing of the study’s release is that state capitals have been abuzz over marijuana reform since last November, when voters in Colorado and Washington made history by legalizing recreational pot use for all adults. In that sense, the eye-popping numbers—like $3.6 billion spent by the states on pot enforcement in 2010, just as harsh cuts to social services and tax hikes were being implemented to fill in the gaps left the by the financial crisis—will serve as fresh ammunition for reform advocates making their case to lawmakers who are still somehow not convinced.

This report aside, there has been a lot of good news for those advocates: even as arrests went up over the last decade, voters in 18 states were moving in the other direction, embracing medical marijuana. And though New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg mocked medical weed as “one of the great hoaxes of all times” last week, the New York State Assembly passed a law legalizing medical marijuana yesterday, just as Maryland did last month. Even the states that helped popularize the law-enforcement techniques behind the marijuana-arrest craze are moving toward tolerance. It’s almost as if they’re listening.

Matt Taylor is a Brooklyn-based writer whose reporting about politics has appeared in Slate, Salon, the Daily Beast, the Atlantic, the New Republic, and New York magazine. You can follow him on Twitter: @matthewt_ny

More marijuana:

Get Rich or High Trying

Eighty-One Years for Weed?

The Vet Who Wants to Legalize Medical Marijuana for Dogs

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