Pubdate: Thu, 02 Jun 2016
Source: SF Weekly (CA)
Column: Chem Tales
Copyright: 2016 Village Voice Media
Author: Chris Roberts


One of the chief arguments against legalizing cannabis in California 
is that legalization is not needed.

In 2010, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill 
decriminalizing up to an ounce of cannabis for all adults, no 
medical-cannabis recommendation from a physician required. Possessing 
under an ounce is punishable by a citation, which carries a fine of 
no more than $100 (plus fees) - or a less serious offense than 
blowing a stop sign on a bicycle.

Thanks to this, misdemeanor marijuana arrests nearly vanished in the 
state, tumbling by almost 90 percent from 2009 to 2011. Nobody really 
goes to jail anymore just for a little bit of weed, this argument goes.

Both the police and prison guard associations, as well as 
self-appointed legalization purists, have seized upon this "truism." 
For the cops holding onto prohibition, the claim, printed in the Los 
Angeles Times as fact, is that weed is already legal thanks to 
Arnold's decrim bill; for the purists, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act 
- - which gives adults free reign to have up to an ounce of cannabis in 
their possession and six plants at home (as well as more of both if 
they have a medical recommendation) - does not go far enough and 
therefore must be opposed. After all, most people who go to jail for 
simple possession of drugs are using harder stuff: meth, cocaine, 
heroin, prescription pills. A real victory in the war on drugs would 
be Portugal-style total decriminalization; anything less is capitulation.

Both lines of logic are wrong. The undeniable racial disparities in 
how pot is policed are continuing, a new study shows, and as always, 
police are policing black and brown people much more stringently than whites.

Data crunched by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Drug 
Policy Alliance shows that Latinos and African-Americans are ticketed 
for cannabis possession at rates exceeding whites - and black people 
are ticketed the most.

The groups analyzed citation data from Los Angeles and Fresno. In 
both cities, they found, black people receive marijuana possession 
infractions at nearly four times the rate as whites. What's more, 
these penalties are most often assessed on youth. In L.A., the 
average person ticketed for marijuana is under 27; in Fresno, he or 
she is under 29.

The data shows that "even at the level of infractions, California law 
enforcement are incapable of applying the law equally across racial 
lines," Alice Huffman, president of the California NAACP, said in a 
statement released Tuesday.

And according to researchers, the situation in these two cities is 
likely the same across the state. It's certainly the case with felony 
and misdemeanor arrests. Over half of the 13,300 people arrested for 
marijuana felonies were black or brown, and almost 4,000 of the 6,411 
misdemeanor marijuana arrestees - or almost two-thirds - were people 
of color. It's not that police do not have the memo; it's that the 
memo is being stomped on, shredded, and then set on fire.

In San Francisco, at least, we enjoy some privilege. Data from 
citations given here were not immediately available, but according to 
arrest statistics at the state Department of Justice, San Francisco 
police appear to be winding down the war. In 2014 - the most recent 
year for which data is available - police made 162 felony marijuana arrests.

Cannabis crimes are clearly less and less of a priority for local 
police. Those 162 arrests are a small percentage of the 1,050 felony 
drug arrests, which is itself a small part of 7,709 arrests for all 
serious crimes. We're lucky to have a police force that's moved on 
from cannabis, and a district attorney who has publicly said time and 
again the drug war has failed - and appears to be backing up all the 
talk with actions (or lack thereof).

In Oakland, voters passed a ballot measure supposedly instructing 
police to make cannabis the lowest priority. Yet the same racial bias 
problems persist. According to the most-recent report presented to 
Oakland's Cannabis Regulatory Commission, 94 percent of people 
arrested or cited for cannabis violations or crimes in that city were 
people of color. That's bad enough, but somehow, black people are 
also 78 percent of the people arrested for "possession with intent to 
distribute," which is still a serious felony crime.

In their defense, police say that they are merely responding to calls 
for service or that the cannabis citation or arrest came on top of a 
more serious crime; for example, a domestic violence suspect also had 
a joint in his pocket. This is almost impossible to corroborate, but 
raises the question: If someone is committing a more serious crime, 
why ring them up for cannabis at all? The answer: because they can.

And citations should not be dismissed as a pittance. The cost for a 
cannabis citation, remember, is $100 "plus fees." According to the 
DPA, the true cost can rise to several hundred dollars after those 
fees are added. That's a lot of money for a student or someone 
working minimum wage - and if a ticket goes unpaid, or if you skip 
out on a court date, a bench warrant can be issued.

All for weed. The war isn't over, and it's still a war on people of 
color - just as the architects of cannabis prohibition intended in 
the first place.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom