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Many of America's Worst Counties for Racially Biased Marijuana Arrests Are Urban

Many of America's Worst Counties for Racially Biased Marijuana Arrests Are Urban
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America's urban areas, often thought of as havens for tolerance and diversity, have some of the most racially biased police practices in the country when it comes to marijuana arrests, according to a study [PDF] released this week by the American Civil Liberties Union. Two of America's most famously liberal counties, in the San Francisco and New York metro areas, led their respective states in racially biased pot busts. 

The numbers are staggering. There were over eight million marijuana arrests between 2000 and 2010, 88 percent of which were for possession. As the ACLU makes clear, those arrests show an overwhelming racial bias: nationally, a black person is 3.73 more likely to be busted for marijuana than a white person, even though blacks and whites use the drug at about the same rate. In over 96 percent of the counties the ACLU examined, it found a racial bias in marijuana arrests. 

State by state, county by county, the level of discrimination fluctuates. In Iowa, where blacks make up only around three percent of the population, a black person is more than eight times more likely to be arrested for pot. The only state in which the arrest rate isn't racially biased is Hawaii. (Hawaii was also the first state with a non-white majority.)

Do urban counties, whose diverse populations tend to soften the statistics of racially biased police work, have more racially biased arrest practices than their rural counterparts? Often, the answer was yes. 

In 2010, an African American in the City of St. Louis (distinct from St. Louis County) was 18.4 times more likely than his or her white neighbor to be arrested on marijuana charges. (Keep in mind that these percentages factor in population demographics -- it's not that 18 black people are arrested on pot charges in St. Louis for every one white person. It's worse, because St. Louis is 48 percent black.)

Milwaukee County, which includes the city of Milwaukee, has the fifth-most biased arrest rate in Wisconsin. Knox County, Tennessee, where Knoxville is located, ranked third in Tennessee for arrest bias. Baltimore and San Francisco were also among the worst offenders in their states. Baltimore City's 5.6 bias rate was the 4th-worst in Maryland; San Francisco County's 4.3 was the worst in California. Multnomah County, Oregon, which contains Portland, had the second-worst racial bias in pot arrests in the state, with 3.3.

A special category may be needed for the counties that make up New York City, where large population samples points to a systemic racial arrest bias. Kings County (Brooklyn) and New York County (Manhattan) were the worst two counties in the state for racially biased marijuana arrests, with blacks respectively 9.7 and 9.4 more likely to be arrested than whites. As Philip Bump observed over at the Wire yesterday, stop-and-frisk, the extensive NYPD search program, plays a large role in these statistics. New York has more than 40 percent more marijuana arrests than the next-closest state, Texas, and Brooklyn alone had more arrests in 2010 than 40 states.

Of course, many cites that aren't the worst in their respective states have equally shameful records -- the 7.2 bias rate in Cook County, aka Chicago, isn't enough to earn it a spot in the top five counties in Illinois, even though it's twice the national average and would easily constitute the most racially biased policing in many states. The same could be said of Miami-Dade County, where blacks are 5.4 times more likely than whites to be arrested for pot. And after looking at all these urban counties where blacks are six, eight or 18 times more likely to be arrested for pot than whites, Maricopa County, Arizona, where Phoenix is located, hardly seems to register on the outrage meter, even though blacks there are still 2.6 times more likely to be arrested for pot. 

Lastly, we owe a dishonorable mention to the largely rural state of Alabama, whose rates of arrest bias on marijuana charges can only be expressed in graph form. Pike County is 59 percent white, by the way.


Chart courtesy of the ACLU.

Top image: bikeriderlondon /Shutterstock.com

Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at The Atlantic Cities. He lives in New York. All posts »

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