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7/29/2014

The Injustice of Marijuana Arrests - NYTimes.com

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N YT NOWHighTime:AnEditorialSeriesonMarijuanaLegalization

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The Injustice of Marijuana Arrests


By JESSE WEGMAN

JULY 28, 2014

Americasfourdecadewarondrugsisresponsibleformanycasualties,
butthecriminalizationofmarijuanahasbeenperhapsthemost
destructivepartofthatwar.Thetollcanbemeasuredindollars
billionsofwhicharethrownawayeachyearintheaggressive
enforcementofpointlesslaws.Itcanbemeasuredinyearswhether
wastedbehindbarsorstolenfromachildwhogrowsupfatherless.And
itcanbemeasuredinlivesthosedamagedifnotdestroyedbythe
shockinglyharshconsequencesthatcanfolloweventhemostminor
offenses.
InOctober2010,BernardNoble,a45yearoldtruckerandfather
ofsevenwithtwopreviousnonviolentoffenses,wasstoppedonaNew
Orleansstreetwithasmallamountofmarijuanainhispocket.His
sentence:morethan13years.
Atleasthewillbereleased.JeffMizanskey,aMissouriman,was
arrestedinDecember1993,forparticipating(unknowingly,hesaid)in
thepurchaseofafivepoundbrickofmarijuana.Becausehehadtwo
priornonviolentmarijuanaconvictions,hewassentencedtolife
withoutparole.

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7/29/2014

The Injustice of Marijuana Arrests - NYTimes.com

Outrageouslylongsentencesareonlypartofthestory.The
hundredsofthousandsofpeoplewhoarearrestedeachyearbutdonot
gotojailalsosuffer;theirarrestsstayontheirrecordsforyears,
cripplingtheirprospectsforjobs,loans,housingandbenefits.These
aredisproportionatelypeopleofcolor,withmarijuanacriminalization
hittingblackcommunitiesthehardest.
Meanwhile,policedepartmentsthatpresumablyhavefarmore
importantthingstodowasteanenormousamountoftimeand
taxpayermoneychasingadrugthattwostateshavealreadylegalized
andthatamajorityofAmericansbelieveshouldbelegaleverywhere.

A Costly, Futile Strategy

Theabsurditystartsonthestreet,withacopandapairof
handcuffs.Asthewarondrugsescalatedthroughthe1980sand1990s,
sodidthefocusoncommon,lowleveloffenseswhatbecameknown
asbrokenwindowspolicing.InNewYorkCity,wherethestrategywas
introducedandremainspopulartoday,thepolicemadefewerthan800
marijuanaarrestsin1991.In2010,theymademorethan59,000.
Nationwide,thenumbersarehardlybetter.From2001to2010,the
policemademorethan8.2millionmarijuanaarrests;almostninein10
wereforpossessionalone.In2011,thereweremorearrestsfor
marijuanapossessionthanforallviolentcrimesputtogether.
Thecostsofthisnationalobsession,inbothmoneyandtime,are
astonishing.Eachyear,enforcinglawsonpossessioncostsmorethan
$3.6billion,accordingtotheAmericanCivilLibertiesUnion.Itcan
takeapoliceofficermanyhourstoarrestandbookasuspect.That
personwilloftenspendanightormoreinthelocaljail,andbeincourt
multipletimestoresolvethecase.Thepublicsafetypayoffforallthis
effortismeageratbest:Accordingtoa2012HumanRightsWatch
reportthattracked30,000NewYorkerswithnopriorconvictionswhen
theywerearrestedformarijuanapossession,90percenthadno
subsequentfelonyconvictions.Only3.1percentcommittedaviolent
offense.

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The Injustice of Marijuana Arrests - NYTimes.com

Thestrategyisalsolargelyfutile.Afterthreedecades,
criminalizationhasnotaffectedgeneralusage;about30million
Americansusemarijuanaeveryyear.Meanwhile,policeforcesacross
thecountryarestrappedforcash,andthemoreresourcestheydevoteto
enforcingmarijuanalaws,thelesstheyhavetogoafterserious,violent
crime.AccordingtoF.B.I.data,morethanhalfofallviolentcrimes
nationwide,andfourinfivepropertycrimes,wentunsolvedin2012.

The Racial Disparity

Thesheervolumeoflawenforcementresourcesdevotedto
marijuanaisbadenough.Whatmakesthesituationfarworseisracial
disparity.Whitesandblacksusemarijuanaatroughlythesamerates;
onaverage,however,blacksare3.7timesmorelikelythanwhitestobe
arrestedforpossession,accordingtoacomprehensive2013reportby
theA.C.L.U.
InIowa,blacksare8.3timesmorelikelytobearrested,andinthe
worstoffendingcountiesinthecountry,theyareupto30timesmore
likelytobearrested.Thewarondrugsaimsitsfirepower
overwhelminglyatAfricanAmericansonthestreet,whilewhiteusers
smokesafelybehindcloseddoors.
Onlyabout6percentofmarijuanacasesleadtoafelony
conviction;therestareoftentreatedasmisdemeanorsresultinginfines
orprobation,ifthechargesarentdismissedcompletely.Evenso,every
arrestendsuponapersonsrecord,whetherornotitleadsto
prosecutionandconviction.Particularlyinpoorerminority
neighborhoods,whereyoungmenaremorelikelytobeoutsideand
repeatedlytargetedbylawenforcement,thesearrestsaccumulate.
Beforelongapersoncanhaveanextensivecriminalhistorythat
consistsonlyofmarijuanamisdemeanorsanddismissedcases.That
criminalhistorycantheninfluencetheseverityofpunishmentfora
futureoffense,howeverinsignificant.
Whilethenumberofpeoplebehindbarssolelyforpossessingor
sellingmarijuanaseemsrelativelysmall20,000to30,000bythe

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mostrecentestimates,orroughly1percentofAmericas2.4million
inmatesthatmeansnothingtopeople,likeJeffMizanskey,whoare
servingbreathtakinglylongtermsbecausetheirrecordscontained
minorpreviousoffenses.Nordoesitmeananythingtothevastmajority
oftheseinmateswhohavenohistoryofviolence(aboutninein10,
accordingtoa2006study).Andaswitharrests,theracialdisparityis
vast:Blacksaremorethan10timesaslikelyaswhitestogotoprisonfor
drugoffenses.Forthoseonprobationorparoleforanyoffense,afailed
drugtestonitsowncanleadtoprisontimewhichmeans,again,that
peoplecanbeputbehindbarsforsmokingmarijuana.
Evenifapersonnevergoestoprison,theconvictionitselfisthetip
oftheiceberg.Inamajorityofstates,marijuanaconvictions
includingthoseresultingfromguiltypleascanhavelifelong
consequencesforemployment,education,immigrationstatusand
familylife.
Amisdemeanorconvictioncanleadto,amongmanyotherthings,
therevocationofaprofessionallicense;thesuspensionofadrivers
license;theinabilitytogetinsurance,amortgageorotherbankloans;
thedenialofaccesstopublichousing;andthelossofstudentfinancial
aid.
Insomestates,afelonyconvictioncanresultinalifetimebanon
voting,juryservice,oreligibilityforpublicbenefitslikefoodstamps.
Peoplecanbefiredfromtheirjobsbecauseofamarijuanaarrest.Even
ifajudgeeventuallythrowsthecaseout,thearrestrecordisoften
availableonlineforayear,freeforanyemployertolookup.

Correcting an Old Inequity

Asrecentlyasthemid1970s,politiciansandthepublicgenerally
agreedthatmarijuanaabusewashandledbetterbytreatmentthanby
prosecutionandincarceration.JimmyCarterranforpresidentandwon
whilesupportingdecriminalization.Butthatviewlostoutasthewaron
drugsbroadenedandintensified,sweepingmarijuanaalongwithit.
Inrecentyears,publicacceptanceofmarijuanahasgrown

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significantly.ThirtyfivestatesandtheDistrictofColumbianowpermit
someformofmedicalmarijuana,andColoradoandWashingtonfully
legalizeditforrecreationalusein2012.Andyetevenasganjapreneurs
scrambletotakeeconomicadvantage,thousandsofpeopleremain
behindbars,orburdenedbycountlesscollateralpunishmentsthat
preventthemfromfullandactivemembershipinsociety.
InaMarchinterview,MichelleAlexander,alawprofessorwhose
book,TheNewJimCrow,articulatedthedrugwarsdeepercoststo
blackmeninparticular,notedthecruelparadoxatplayinColorado
andWashington.Shepointedto40yearsofimpoverishedblackkids
gettingprisontimeforsellingweed,andtheirfamiliesandfutures
destroyed,andsaid,Now,whitemenareplanningtogetrichdoing
preciselythesamething?
Aspioneersinlegalization,thosetwostatesshouldsetafurther
examplebyprovidingrelieftopeopleconvictedofcrimesthatareno
longercrimes,includingoverturningconvictions.Arecentrulingbya
Coloradoappealscourtoverturnedtwo2011convictionsbecauseofthe
changedlaw,andthestatesLegislaturehasenactedlawsinthelasttwo
yearstogivecourtsmorepowertosealrecordsofdrugconvictionsand
tomakeiteasierfordefendantstogetjobsandhousingaftera
conviction.Thesearebothimportantstepsintoanunchartedfuture.
Meet The New York Timess Editorial Board
A version of this editorial appears in print on July 29, 2014, on page A20 of the New York
edition with the headline: The Injustice of Marijuana Arrests.

2014 The New York Times Company

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