The unifying social experience for young black men in Washington, D.C. is not attending college, serving in the military or receiving government assistance -- it is being punished by the criminal justice system. DC police arrest a thousand people every year for selling marijuana. Almost all of the dealers they catch are black, since they use undercover officers and informants to buy marijuana from "suspicious" individuals in primarily black neighborhoods. Due to aggressive anti-drug legislation, offenders not only face harsh sentences but can also lose their driver's license, job, housing, college loans, voting rights and even their children. Initiative 71, on DC's ballot this November, would attack this form of racial discrimination by allowing adults to possess, grow and give away small amounts of marijuana.
Though Washington, D.C. is not well-known for marijuana use, it is number one in marijuana law enforcement. The 2011 arrest rate for marijuana dealing* in Washington, D.C. was more than double that of any U.S. state (Figure 1). The ACLU estimates that DC spends $26 million every year on marijuana law enforcement alone, more per capita than any state in the nation.
White marijuana dealers in DC are 20 times less likely to be arrested than black dealers, the highest racial disparity of its kind in the nation. While marijuana users in DC are roughly 41 percent black and 49 percent white, those arrested for dealing marijuana are 91 percent black and 4 percent white (Figure 2). We know that DC's marijuana dealers aren't actually 91 percent black and 4 percent white. While nobody has data on the precise racial breakdown, all available evidence suggests that DC's marijuana dealers are in fact more white than black. Research says that most users buy drugs from someone of the same race. Government surveys find that black and white youth are equally likely to sell drugs, as are low-, middle- and high-income youth. Whether we assume that whites and blacks in DC are equally likely to sell marijuana, or that they sell it in the same proportion as they use it, a white dealer in DC is 20 times less likely to be arrested than his or her black counterpart.
If you feel that this is impossible, that black people must be far more likely to deal drugs because police couldn't possibly discriminate by such a large margin, consider how these arrests actually occur. Police officers don't just stumble upon drug deals; undercover agents and informants approach "suspicious" individuals in primarily black neighborhoods to attempt to buy marijuana. These sting operations are common in DC's black neighborhoods in Anacostia, Lincoln Heights, Trinidad and Petworth. How often do undercover agents attempt to entrap white people to sell them a joint in Georgetown, Cleveland Park or Van Ness? New visual arrest data for DC shows that agents were either unable to buy marijuana in these white neighborhoods full of marijuana users, or they simply didn't try. So why would police focus marijuana enforcement on black neighborhoods? For the same reason that an undercover bust seems natural in Anacostia and uncalled-for in Georgetown. Unconscious bias makes police, judges, probation officers, politicians and voters like me view black drug dealers as "criminals" and white dealers as "good kids who got mixed up with the wrong crowd." Imagine the response if police focused their undercover operations on middle-class, well-connected white communities.
Instead, largely due to marijuana offenses, we are probably still living in a city where roughly half of DC's black male population between the ages of 18 and 35 is in prison or jail, on probation or parole, currently awaiting trial or fleeing an arrest warrant. The unifying social experience for young black men in DC is not attending college, serving in the military or receiving government assistance -- it is being punished by the criminal justice system.
As a result of aggressive anti-drug legislation, marijuana convictions carry harsh consequences in addition to the judge's sentence. Anyone convicted of selling marijuana in DC is barred from adopting or becoming a foster parent, living in public housing, working for the government, voting or serving on a jury. Unlike convicted murderers, rapists or other violent criminals, marijuana offenders can also lose food stamps and other public assistance payments, college loans and their driver's license as a direct consequence of their conviction. The offense can strip them of occupational licenses, cause employers to reject their job applications and trigger a Child Protective Services investigation that uses marijuana dealing as grounds to take away their children. These consequences affect not only the offender but their entire family.
Initiative 71 would allow adults to possess, grow and give away limited amounts of marijuana. It would prevent police from arresting thousands of people every year for small-time marijuana possession and dealing. There are numerous other reasons to legalize marijuana, but in DC one of the best ones would be fighting back against this form of racial discrimination. Here, marijuana legalization is not just a personal rights issue, it's a civil rights campaign.
*Here, "marijuana dealing" includes the charges of distributing marijuana, possession with intent to distribute marijuana and conspiracy to distribute marijuana.