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Blacks more likely to be arrested for pot possession than whites, report says

October 22, 2010 | 11:39 am

Seeking to appeal to black voters to support marijuana legalization, the Drug Policy Alliance and the state NAACP are releasing a report Friday afternoon saying that blacks were arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession at higher rates than whites in 25 California cities.

The report, which will be discussed at a news conference at the NAACP’s convention in Oakland, follows one released this summer finding a similar disparity in California’s 25 largest counties. Alice Huffman, the president of the state NAACP, steered the group toward an endorsement of Proposition 19 earlier this year, arguing that it is a civil rights issue.

The Proposition 19 campaign is targeting black voters with mailers and phone calls. Among those expected at the news conference are actor Danny Glover and Dr. Joycelyn Elders, a former U.S. surgeon general. In a preface to the report, Huffman calls the war on drugs "a war on people of color" and writes: "For decades, law enforcement strategies have targeted low-income people of color who bear the disproportionate burden and stigma of arrest, prosecution, and permanent criminal records for marijuana possession and other minor drug offenses."

The initiative would allow adults at least 21 years old to possess up to an ounce of marijuana, which is now a misdemeanor. Last year, California made 61,164 arrests for the crime.

Roger Salazar, a spokesman for No on 19, acknowledged there are disparaties, but pointed out that no one is incarcerated for misdemeanor marijuana possession, which is a $100 fine. He also noted that less than 1% of the inmates in state prisons are there for marijuana crimes.

"This has very little to do with Prop. 19," he said. "As we have seen with most recent polling, people of color are the ones moving against the initiative and against recreational legalization."

In Los Angeles, the report found that blacks are arrested at 7.1 times the rate of whites. Torrance had the highest disparity among the cities studied, with blacks 13.8 times as likely to be arrested. Pasadena had the second-highest rate at 12.5 times. The lowest rate was Compton, at 2.2 times. The researchers did not include California cities that had low arrest rates for marijuana possession.

The higher arrest rates for blacks in 2006 through 2008 come despite federal surveys showing they use marijuana at lower rates than whites. Because police departments focus on high-crime neighborhoods that are often black, marijuana arrests are racially biased, the report concludes.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has signed a bill that will make possession of up to an ounce an infraction, rather than a misdemeanor, which means it will no longer lead to a criminal record. Opponents of Proposition 19 argue that this makes the initiative unnecessary.

But Stephen Gutwillig, the Califorinia director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said infraction records will still appear in some databases that could be searched by landlords and employers. He also said police might write more tickets, knowing they will not lead to jury trials. "Potentially even more young African-Americans and Latinos are going to be stopped and detained," he said.

The Drug Policy Alliance and the William C. Velasquez Institute are planning to release a report on Tuesday that highlights arrests of Latinos for misdemeanor marijuana possession.

-- John Hoeffel