Is There a Middle Road between Marijuana Incarceration and Marijuana Legalization?
As part of its special series titled Race Matters, an investigation by Miami’s CBS4 News this week, provides an opportunity to consider new ways to think about marijuana and racial imbalances in the way our laws are enforced.
CBS4 News gathered and analyzed police records of every misdemeanor marijuana case in Miami Dade County between 2010 and 2014. They found:
- Misdemeanor marijuana arrests accounted for ten percent of all cases filed in the court system.
- Of 44,860 closed cases, 55 percent had African-American defendants, even though the county is less than 20 percent black.
- Just two percent of these cases resulted in a conviction.
- Of these, 74 percent were black.
- Prosecutors dismissed or dropped 49 percent of these cases.
- Of these, 56 percent were white.
- The other 49 percent of cases were settled by a “withhold of adjudication,” an admission of guilt but not a formal conviction. However, the admission stays in a person’s permanent record, hurts his or her ability to find work or housing, and can prevent the person from enlisting in the military, receiving student loans, or becoming a citizen.
- 65 percent of these were black.
CBS4 News writes, “Miami Dade Police Director JD Patterson and others in his department have argued police officers are not targeting blacks, they are merely making stops and arrests in neighborhoods with a high crime rate. And those neighborhoods just happen to be predominantly black.”
“Donald Jones, a constitutional and civil rights law professor at the University of Miami, says that may have been the initial intent of the police, but what has happened over time is that officers begin looking at everyone in those neighborhoods as a suspect and begin treating them differently as well. ‘It says to me that we’re profiling,’ Jones said. ‘We’ve gotten to a point where we criminalize whole communities. We see certain communities as being communities of criminals and we police them that way.’ Jones said it can have a chilling effect on the relationship between the police and the community. ‘It creates an atmosphere as if this is a different America,’ he said.”
We note that the 44,000-plus marijuana cases CBS4 News examined are only 10 percent of all cases that went through the Miami Dade County court system over the five-year period.
Proponents have built their case for marijuana legalization on racial inequities in the enforcement of marijuana laws like these in Miami Dade County, implying that legalizing pot will end unequal enforcement of the law. But the problem of racial disparities in the criminal justice system is much deeper than marijuana alone, as Professor Jones explains. Until we can see that, we won’t be able to change it effectively.
Few Americans believe that putting low-level marijuana offenders, black or white, in jail is appropriate. Few believe that straddling them with lifetime criminal records is fair or just. Judges in Miami Dade County hope the county commission will adopt a proposed civil citation ordinance that would give police the option of issuing a $100 ticket to marijuana offenders. This would keep them out of the criminal justice system and reduce costs to taxpayers.
We believe that is a good first step, but it does not go far enough. Despite denials from legalization proponents, marijuana is addictive. Some nine percent of people who try the drug will become addicted. The number rises to 17 percent if use begins in adolescence and to 25 percent to 50 percent for daily use. We would like to see a public health/social justice system replace the criminal justice system for low-level marijuana offenders. Its goal would be to provide public health and social services to them after they pay their fines. Such services would medically assess them to determine if they are addicted. Those who are would receive treatment. Those who aren’t would receive educational and social services to help them pursue more productive lives. Money saved from removing marijuana cases from the courts could be used to finance this system.
Or we could do away with the marijuana laws, legalize pot, and ignore the consequences. To do so would be to allow a commercial marijuana industry to emerge that will rival the tobacco and alcohol industries, as all three prey on children, the addicted, the poor and the vulnerable, while simply discarding the victims who can’t handle their products.
Read “Race Matters: Marijuana Cases Flood Court System” here.
THIS COLUMN IS COURTESY OF NATIONAL FAMILIES IN ACTION
National Families in Action and partners, Project SAM and the Treatment Research Institute, welcome our new readers. We hope you enjoy this weekly e-newsletter to keep up-to-date with all aspects of the marijuana story. Visit our website, The Marijuana Report.Org, and subscribe to the weekly e-newsletterThe Marijuana Report to learn more.
National Families in Action is a group of families, scientists, business leaders, physicians, addiction specialists, policymakers, and others committed to protecting children from addictive drugs. We advocate for:
- Healthy, drug-free kids
- Nurturing, addiction-free families
- Scientifically accurate information and education
- A nation free of Big Marijuana
- Smart, safe, FDA-approved medicines developed from the cannabis plant (and other plants)
- Expanded access to medicines in FDA clinical trials for children with epilepsy
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