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Prop. 19 backers cite higher marijuana arrest rates for Latinos

October 27, 2010 |  3:51 pm

Aiming to persuade Latino voters to back a marijuana legalization measure as a civil rights issue, supporters released a new report Wednesday showing that Latinos are arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession at higher rates than whites in California’s cities.

The campaign highlighted the report, one of a series that have found that minorities are arrested more frequently for marijuana possession than whites, at a news conference in Los Angeles that filled a small conference room with reporters and television news cameras.

Pollsters estimate that Latinos will make up more than a sixth of voters who cast ballots Nov. 2, and many live within the Los Angeles media market.

"We look forward to disseminating this study far and wide," said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, which studies policies that affect Latinos and sponsored the report with the Drug Policy Alliance, a national advocacy group backing Proposition 19.

Gonzalez also runs the Latino Voters League, which endorsed the measure and received $131,505 from the alliance to contact young Latino voters to ask them to back the proposition. Most recent polls have shown that Latino voters are leaning against the initiative.

Proposition 19 would allow adults 21 and older to grow up to 25 square feet and possess up to an ounce of marijuana, and it would let cities and counties authorize commercial cultivation and retail sales, and impose taxes.

Possession of an ounce or less of marijuana is a misdemeanor with a $100 fine. Last year, California made 61,164 arrests for misdemeanor pot possession.

The study, based on state criminal justice statistics, found that Latinos were arrested more often than whites in 33 cities between 2006 and 2008. The report found the disparity to be highest in Pasadena, with Latinos arrested at 2.9 times the rate for whites, followed by Santa Monica and Alhambra at 2.7 times. In Los Angeles, the arrest rate was twice as high for Latinos.

Earlier reports found even higher disparities for African Americans. The Drug Policy Alliance is using the studies to appeal to black and Latino voters to back the initiative.

The campaign has won the endorsement of the state NAACP and the National Black Police Assn., but the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement opposed it. On Wednesday, the campaign announced the endorsement of the National Latino Officers Assn. Several major Latino organizations declined to endorse the initiative but have not opposed it.

Roger Salazar, a spokesman for the No on 19 campaign, said the initiative would not address disproportionate enforcement.

"It’s clear there are disparities in arrests, and that is a problem that we have in California and around the country," he said. "But Prop. 19 does nothing to solve those things."

He noted that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill that will make possession of an ounce or less an infraction on Jan. 1 but that under the initiative, possession of more than an ounce would still be a felony.

"What we should be doing is addressing the cause of the disparities," he said.

The news conference drew two Latino police officers. Diane Goldstein, who emigrated from Mexico as a child, was the only one from California. "People at times are afraid to speak out," she said.

Goldstein, now a businesswoman, left the Redondo Beach Police Department six years ago. "By the time I retired as a lieutenant commander, it was like: Why are we dealing with pot?" she said. "It’s time to move forward. Our policies don’t work."

Anthony Miranda, executive chairman of the National Latino Officers Assn. and a retired New York City police sergeant, said that the organization has about 10,000 members but that he didn't know how many it has in California. He believes that Proposition 19 would end ethnically disproportionate enforcement and allow police to focus on serious drug crimes, he said.

"It’s not cost effective, and it’s also not logically effective," he said.

The report says Latinos are arrested at higher rates despite federal surveys indicating that they use marijuana at lower rates than whites. Stephen Gutwillig, the California director for the alliance, said the arrests stem not from racist policies but from policing tactics that concentrate on neighborhoods where minorities live.

"The police do not focus enforcement of these laws in white communities," he said.

-- John Hoeffel