Posted on June 11, 2013

“Black Are Singled Out for Marijuana Arrests, Federal Data Suggests”

Roger Clegg, Center for Equal Opportunity, June 11, 2013

“Black Are Singled Out for Marijuana Arrests, Federal Data Suggests”:  So reads a headline in last Tuesday’s New York Times. The message of the article (which draws on a report released last week by the ACLU) is that blacks and whites use marijuana at the same rates but blacks are more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, so therefore discrimination must be afoot.

A few problems here (besides the fact that the headline should read “Data Suggest” rather than “Data Suggests”) : First, it is frequently claimed that this group uses a drug at the same rate as another group, but it is also frequently the case that the data — which obviously have to be taken with a grain of salt in this context anyhow — don’t bear this out (not to mention the fact that there’s a difference between counting those who have ever used a drug versus, say, having used it in the last week). On this first point, though, I’m willing to give the current report the benefit of the doubt.

But, second, even if two groups use marijuana at the same rate, that doesn’t mean we should expect arrest rates to be the same, and on this point the report, as I read it, is faulty. Indeed, the report implicitly acknowledges its limitations in this regard: “A more scholarly analysis would . . . control for a set of time-varying explanatory variables, such as total drug arrests and drug use, to test whether the coefficient on the race variable is statistically significant. Ideally, the multivariate regression analysis would also control for individual characteristics of each arrest, such as amount of marijuana possessed and the age and criminal history record of the individual arrested . . .”

For instance, the police are more likely to be interested in sellers than personal users; accordingly, if one group is more likely than another to be involved in sales, it is more likely to see arrests. Likewise, people who buy or sell a drug in open-air markets are more likely to attract police attention than those who sell drugs more discreetly. And I think this makes perfect sense and has nothing to do with discrimination: Not only is it easier to make arrests in this context, but there are fewer privacy concerns and such markets are especially objectionable to the law-abiding folks who find them in their neighborhoods. If the police ignored them, no doubt they would be called racist for that.

My point here is not to defend the marijuana laws and the way they are enforced, but to note that this report doesn’t make the case that there is racist policing.