ACLU of Washington Drug Policy Advocate Mark Cooke
Late last week the ACLU of Washington sent out an infographic (see below) illustrating the growing racial disparity of marijuana-related arrests in Washington. As the ACLU noted, "There have been over 240,000 arrests for adult marijuana possession, consuming over $300 million in taxpayer money, since 1986. And people of color are the more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in Washington state."
ACLU of Washington Drug Policy Advocate Mark Cooke
In this week's installment of The Horse's Mouth, Seattle Weekly chats with ACLU of Washington Drug Policy Advocate Mark Cooke about these troubling statistics and what can be done to reverse them.
Seattle Weekly: Despite the fact more people are probably aware of it, and more people in positions of power have acknowledged it (nationally, AG Eric Holder has talked of it, locally Mike McGinn has acknowledged it), racially disproportionate enforcement of marijuana laws is getting worse (as shown by this info and graph from the Marijuana Arrest Project). How do you account for this?
Mark Cooke: Marijuana law enforcement has resulted in racial disproportionalities for many years and there have been no serious attempts to address the problem, so it's not surprising that the disparity has persisted. Why it has gotten worse is not clear. It may have to do with changes to Washington's racial demographics as well as our society's failure to seriously confront racism and bias in the criminal justice system.
It seems like this issue must be bigger than simply racist cops. It seems like it must be rooted in an institutionalized racism, or even in societal racism that might not be readily apparent at first glance. At the end of the day, what can we chalk this problem up to?
Racial disparities and trends in enforcement are likely caused by numerous factors. As a report by the Washington State Task Force on Race and the Criminal Justice System pointed out, "racial and ethnic bias distorts decision-making at various stages in the criminal justice system, thus contributing to disproportionalities in the criminal justice system." In other words, it goes way beyond the attitudes of individual police officers. It's ingrained racism and racial stereotypes found throughout the criminal justice system that cause disparity in enforcement.
Most importantly, how the hell do we go about fixing things? Is the answer found in rewriting marijuana policy and decriminalization?
There are a number of concrete policy proposals that could decrease racial disproportionality in law enforcement. Treating drug abuse as a public health issue instead of a crime is a major one. The biggest driver of mass-incarceration and racial disparity in the criminal justice system over the last three decades has been the War on Drugs. Providing people with treatment options and fully funding prevention programs in schools (not D.A.R.E.) would be a much more effective way of dealing with problematic drug use and would decrease racial disproportionality in the criminal justice system.
Another good place to start would be legalizing, taxing, and regulating marijuana for adults - as I-502 seeks to do. Legalizing marijuana nationwide would instantly stop hundreds of thousands of people from being arrested each year. Washington state can take the lead in the U.S. by having voters approve I-502 and send a message to decision makers that the public is ready for a change in marijuana policy.
Extra Credit: If Washington approves I-502 Tuesday, will that help the situation in our state? Is there a concern the DUID language in I-502 could provide another avenue for racial disparities in law enforcement (basically, a fear that more people of color will be subject to getting pulled over and having their blood tested for active THC)?
Passing I-502 is not a silver bullet for ending racial disparity in law enforcement in Washington, but it will definitely help. Over 10,000 adults are arrested for marijuana possession in our state each year, a disproportionate percentage are people of color. I-502 will stop this practice.
The DUID provisions in I-502 have too frequently been misunderstood. Police need reasonable grounds to believe a driver is impaired in the first place and must have probable cause to make an arrest. Further, the provisions in I-502 are based on scientific evidence and anyone concerned can read the studies on the issue. It's important to remember that it is already illegal to drive while under the influence of marijuana, so law enforcement can already pull people over and test them for active THC. The notion that law enforcement is going to substantially change their DUID enforcement practices as a result of I-502 is also unfounded. Thirteen states currently have per se DUID marijuana laws (many that are zero tolerance) and there was no explosion of new arrests after these laws passed. That said, it's important to keep studying the issue of marijuana impairment and driving, so some of the revenue from I-502 will be directed to study the topic.
Find the info and graph from the Marijuana Arrest Project illustrating the growing racial disparity of marijuana-related arrests in Washington on the following page ...