Pubdate: Fri, 27 Nov 2015
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2015 The Washington Post Company
Author: Tom Jackman


Cases Rose 76% Over 11-Year Study

Blacks Accused Three Times More Than Whites

While the trend in much of the United States is moving toward 
decriminalization or legalization of marijuana, Virginia is heading 
in the opposite direction: With sharply rising arrest totals for the 
possession of pot and a disproportionate number of black people 
arrested in the Commonwealth, according to a new study based on state 
data reported to the FBI.

Although marijuana arrests dropped 6.5 percent nationwide between 
2003 and 2014, possession arrests in Virginia increased by 76 percent 
during that period, according to research by the Drug Policy Alliance 
in New York. And arrests of black people in Virginia for marijuana 
increased by 106 percent from 2003 to 2013, accounting for 47 percent 
of the state's arrests even though Virginia's population is only 20 
percent black. The statistics were compiled by Jon Gettman, a public 
policy professor at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va., and 
follow his national marijuana arrest analysis for the American Civil 
Liberties Union in 2013. That study showed that nationwide, black 
people were 3.7 times more likely to be arrested than whites for 
marijuana and that 88 percent of the country's arrests were for 
marijuana possession.

The disparity in the District - black people were eight times more 
likely to be arrested for simple possession than whites - helped 
drive the D.C. Council to decriminalize marijuana in 2013, followed 
by voters legalizing pot in 2014. Twenty states have now 
decriminalized marijuana by reducing or eliminating penalties for 
minor offenses, and four states and the District have legalized it.

At present, Virginia is heading the other way, Gettman's study shows: 
The ratio of black-to-white marijuana arrests was 2.4 to 1 in 2003, 
but in 2013, it was 3.3 to 1. In the three years from 2011 to 2013, 
annual possession arrests by Virginia law enforcement went up by 
about 2,000 a year, and black Virginians accounted for 82 percent of 
the increase.

Brian Moran, Virginia's secretary of public safety, said that he had 
not reviewed the specific data from the report but that "there is no 
argument that minorities are statistically overrepresented in many 
aspects of our justice system and that the causes are complex." Moran 
said the administration of Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) "is dedicated to 
understanding and addressing these disparities in the adult and 
juvenile systems" by implementing such programs as evidence-based 
decision-making for police agencies in six communities; launching a 
"Classrooms not Courtrooms" initiative that addresses 
"disproportionate minority contact"; and partnering with the attorney 
general's office "to develop new training curricula that enhance 
effective community engagement."

Misdemeanor marijuana arrests "needlessly ensnare people in the 
criminal justice system," said Claire Gastanaga, executive director 
of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia. "That limits their 
ability to get a job, financial aid, child custody. There's a 
mandatory six-month driver's license revocation, then they can't keep 
their job, can't pay child support. Then you have a bunch of people 
in jail because they're poor. That's the big picture."

The collateral impact of misdemeanor drug arrests was another factor 
in the District's move to decriminalize pot. Virginia state Sen. Adam 
P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria) filed a bill last year in the General 
Assembly to reduce the fine from a maximum of $500 to a civil penalty 
of no more than $100 and to eliminate the 30-day maximum jail time. 
It did not emerge from its committee this year.

Ebbin cited a statistic from the ACLU's report that estimated 
Virginia spent $67.2 million in 2010 to enforce marijuana laws. 
"That's $67 million that could be helping people," Ebbin said. "Our 
laws are antiquated. And it's doubly troubling when you see the 
disparity with regards to people of color. We don't give people of 
color an easy path to start with. Giving them a high bar in a way 
that looks like they are targeted is really awful."

Virginia law enforcement authorities, however, still see marijuana as 
a dangerous drug and are not inclined to reduce enforcement. Dana 
Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of 
Police, said state police officials are "closely watching the 
outcomes in Colorado and Washington state to monitor how their legal 
reforms have impacted the quality of life in those states. We're also 
very interested in the impact of the District's reforms on Northern Virginia."

She said that members of the Central Virginia Marijuana Task Force 
still consider marijuana a "gateway drug" to other narcotics and that 
they met recently with Moran "just to put our concerns about 
legalization efforts on his radar." Police are particularly 
concerned, Schrad said, about the impact of marijuana on the work 
environment, especially public safety workers and commercial truck 
drivers, since there is "no ability to field test how ' high' a 
person is on marijuana and how much that impairs the ability to drive."

Lindsey Lawson Battaglia, a former Fairfax criminal defense attorney 
with years of experience defending clients in marijuana cases, 
recently joined the Drug Policy Alliance. Gettman's data confirmed 
what she had seen in the Fairfax courthouse, she said: that massive 
marijuana arrests "are ineffective. We can tell from Gettman's study 
that marijuana use isn't going down" - Gettman cited surveys that 
found marijuana use rising in Virginia - "so we have a failed policy, 
and it's expensive."

Battaglia said the racial disparities in pot arrests are not unique 
to Virginia, "but if you care about justice and you care about 
fairness, this isn't acceptable." She noted that blacks made up 45 
percent of Arlington County's pot arrests in 2013 , even though they 
make up only 9 percent of its population.

"Across the U.S., people of color are overrepresented at every stage 
of the criminal justice process," Battaglia said. "That is an 
implicit bias that we hope we as a country will deal with some day."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom