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Weed's Race War Continues - By - June 1, 2016 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

Weed's Race War Continues

One of the chief arguments against legalizing cannabis in California is that legalization is not needed.

In 2010, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill decriminalizing up to an ounce of cannabis for all adults, no medical-cannabis recommendation from a physician required. Possessing under an ounce is punishable by a citation, which carries a fine of no more than $100 (plus fees) — or a less serious offense than blowing a stop sign on a bicycle.

Thanks to this, misdemeanor marijuana arrests nearly vanished in the state, tumbling by almost 90 percent from 2009 to 2011. Nobody really goes to jail anymore just for a little bit of weed, this argument goes.

Both the police and prison guard associations, as well as self-appointed legalization purists, have seized upon this “truism.” For the cops holding onto prohibition, the claim, printed in the Los Angeles Times as fact, is that weed is already legal thanks to Arnold's decrim bill; for the purists, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act — which gives adults free reign to have up to an ounce of cannabis in their possession and six plants at home (as well as more of both if they have a medical recommendation) — does not go far enough and therefore must be opposed. After all, most people who go to jail for simple possession of drugs are using harder stuff: meth, cocaine, heroin, prescription pills. A real victory in the war on drugs would be Portugal-style total decriminalization; anything less is capitulation.

Both lines of logic are wrong. The undeniable racial disparities in how pot is policed are continuing, a new study shows, and as always, police are policing black and brown people much more stringently than whites.

Data crunched by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Drug Policy Alliance shows that Latinos and African-Americans are ticketed for cannabis possession at rates exceeding whites — and black people are ticketed the most.

The groups analyzed citation data from Los Angeles and Fresno. In both cities, they found, black people receive marijuana possession infractions at nearly four times the rate as whites. What's more, these penalties are most often assessed on youth. In L.A., the average person ticketed for marijuana is under 27; in Fresno, he or she is under 29.

The data shows that “even at the level of infractions, California law enforcement are incapable of applying the law equally across racial lines,” Alice Huffman, president of the California NAACP, said in a statement released Tuesday.

And according to researchers, the situation in these two cities is likely the same across the state. It's certainly the case with felony and misdemeanor arrests. Over half of the 13,300 people arrested for marijuana felonies were black or brown, and almost 4,000 of the 6,411 misdemeanor marijuana arrestees — or almost two-thirds — were people of color. It's not that police do not have the memo; it's that the memo is being stomped on, shredded, and then set on fire.

In San Francisco, at least, we enjoy some privilege. Data from citations given here were not immediately available, but according to arrest statistics at the state Department of Justice, San Francisco police appear to be winding down the war. In 2014 — the most recent year for which data is available — police made 162 felony marijuana arrests.

Cannabis crimes are clearly less and less of a priority for local police. Those 162 arrests are a small percentage of the 1,050 felony drug arrests, which is itself a small part of 7,709 arrests for all serious crimes. We're lucky to have a police force that's moved on from cannabis, and a district attorney who has publicly said time and again the drug war has failed — and appears to be backing up all the talk with actions (or lack thereof).

In Oakland, voters passed a ballot measure supposedly instructing police to make cannabis the lowest priority. Yet the same racial bias problems persist. According to the most-recent report presented to Oakland's Cannabis Regulatory Commission, 94 percent of people arrested or cited for cannabis violations or crimes in that city were people of color. That's bad enough, but somehow, black people are also 78 percent of the people arrested for “possession with intent to distribute,” which is still a serious felony crime.

In their defense, police say that they are merely responding to calls for service or that the cannabis citation or arrest came on top of a more serious crime; for example, a domestic violence suspect also had a joint in his pocket. This is almost impossible to corroborate, but raises the question: If someone is committing a more serious crime, why ring them up for cannabis at all? The answer: because they can.

And citations should not be dismissed as a pittance. The cost for a cannabis citation, remember, is $100 “plus fees.” According to the DPA, the true cost can rise to several hundred dollars after those fees are added. That's a lot of money for a student or someone working minimum wage — and if a ticket goes unpaid, or if you skip out on a court date, a bench warrant can be issued.

All for weed. The war isn't over, and it's still a war on people of color — just as the architects of cannabis prohibition intended in the first place.