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Race is a ‘chronic’ enforcement problem

marijuana‘War on Marijuana in Black and White’

By Phreddy Wischusen
The Michigan Citizen

DETROIT — A recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union shows marijuana laws are enforced unequally for Black and white Americans nationwide.

“The War on Marijuana in Black and White” released in March reports that though the percentage of Blacks and whites who use marijuana is virtually identical, African Americans are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested. The 190-page report states, “There were 140,000 more marijuana arrests in 2010 than in 2001, and 784,021 of them, or 88 percent, were for possession.”

It continues, “The War on Marijuana has largely been a war on people of color. Despite the fact that marijuana is used at comparable rates by whites and Blacks, state and local governments have aggressively enforced marijuana laws selectively against Black people and communities.”

In conjunction with the report, the ACLU and Interbrand developed a website that allows users to examine the statistics in their own state, using data from the report. According to, Michigan spent $94,838,792 enforcing marijuana laws in 2010. African Americans were 3.3 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana-related offenses than non-Blacks — FBI arrest data overwhelmingly categorizes Latino arrests as “white.” People with criminal records and/or histories of arrest, find it significantly harder to find work, contributing to poverty and endemic social problems if communities are disproportionately affected by marijuana enforcement.

These statistics corroborate lawyer and legal scholar Michelle Alexander’s theory, the War on Drugs, and the resulting mass incarceration of Black men have created a new “Jim Crow.”

In 2012, two Michigan cities, Detroit and Grand Rapids, passed ballot initiatives decriminalizing marijuana. In Detroit, the law gave citizens the right to possess (but not buy, sell or transport) one ounce or less of marijuana in their homes. In Grand Rapids, a charter amendment makes the “possession, control, use or giving away of marijuana a civil infraction” punishable by a $25 fine.

Civil infractions, as opposed to misdemeanors and felonies are punishable only by monetary fines. Legally, jail and probation are expressly prohibited as means of punishment for civil infractions. A parking ticket is a civil infraction.

Grand Rapids and Detroit have each chosen to deal with the new legislation differently.

handcuffs, arrest

In Michigan, African Americans are 3.3 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana offenses. COURTESY PHOTO

In May 2013, six months after the charter amendment passed, Grand Rapids City Manager Gregory Sundstrom directed police to begin enforcing marijuana possession according to the new legislation, as a civil infraction.

Lt. William Nowicki of the Grand Rapids Police Department says “arrests for possession of marijuana have virtually gone down to zero since May of 2013 when the decriminalization law came to Grand Rapids.”

“The officers are doing the same amount of work as they were before, but the end result is different,” Nowicki told the Michigan Citizen. “Before they were arrested, now they are getting a ticket and going on their way.”

Because tickets written essentially equal the number of former arrests, Nowicki doesn’t believe decriminalization has caused marijuana usage to increase in the area. “I don’t think anyone is using it any more or less,” he said. Although the police are still interacting with the same amount of citizens, the department’s temporal resources have increased. “Definitely court time has gone down,” Nowicki said.

Nowicki pointed out that county, state and federal enforcement authorities still consider marijuana possession to be a criminal offense in accordance with state law and continue to treat it as such.

In fact, the Kent County (home of Grand Rapids) prosecutor’s office has sued the city of Grand Rapids. The prosecutor wants city police to ignore the voter-mandated charter amendment and treat possession of less than 2.5 ounces of marijuana as a criminal offense.

The ACLU of Michigan’s deputy legal director, Dan Korobkin, disagrees. “The citizens of every city should have the ability to choose for themselves and their police force — since they pay the taxes in their city — what kind of crimes the police are going to focus on,” Korobkin told the Michigan Citizen.

The case is still open in the State Court of Appeals. The ACLU of Michigan has filed an amicus brief in that case, which draws some date from the ACLU’s War on Marijuana report, stating: “Nationwide, the disparity between (B)lack and white marijuana arrests grew by over 30 percent between 2001 and 2010. When the disparate impact is broken down by state, Michigan has the fourth highest increase: And when arrest rates in individual counties are analyzed, the data shows that the disparity between (B)lack and white marijuana arrests grew by an alarming 426 percent in Kent County. As of 2010, (B)lacks in Kent County are over seven times more likely than whites to be arrested for possession of marijuana.”

Korobkin thinks the data in the ACLU report and the effort to decriminalize in various cities are linked. “In light of these really stark racial disparities when it comes to marijuana arrests, not only all over the country, but in Grand Rapids too, it’s entirely understandable, and it should be acceptable, for the voters to say ‘let’s focus on a different area, because this is not working in Grand Rapids,’” says Korobkin. While the case is being argued, possession of small amounts of marijuana are still being treated as a civil infraction by police.

Detroit has taken an opposite approach. Although the law allowing city residents to possess up to one ounce of marijuana in their own homes was passed by voters in November 2012, Detroit Police say they continue to enforce the state laws exactly as they did before the referendum — as a criminal offense.

Mayor Mike Duggan spoke about the issue on WDIV’s “Flashpoint” March 9 saying, “The city of Detroit decriminalized small amounts of marijuana. I voted the other way on that measure, but the voters of Detroit have spoken and I’m certainly honoring what the people of this city said… My job is, I’m elected by the voters to enforce the laws as adopted by the voters so I’m honoring the voters’ decision.”

Mayor Duggan, however, does not have authority over police enforcement. Police Chief James Craig answers directly to the governor-appointed emergency manager, Kevyn Orr.

Without specific intervention to stop how marijuana laws are enforced, Korobkin believes the disparities will worsen. “Sentencing on drug-related offenses are through the roof,” he says. “Police forces are concentrating in particular areas because that’s where they can get their grants or they can seize property, and they can use that money to further their department. A lot of the incentives can cause ordinary people who are doing their best to have their lives disrupted.”

With much of the city’s political energy devoted to the on-going bankruptcy negotiations, Korobkin doesn’t believe the issue of marijuana enforcement will get much attention in the near future. The issue remains important nonetheless. “(I)t’s entirely illegal, once the voters of a city say (what they want) … for the local police department to ignore that,” Korobkin says.

Whenever, Detroit or any other city begins to examine the issue, Michelle Alexander warns against legalization without examining the racial impact. In other press, Alexander called for the U.S. to not only end the war on drugs, but to pay “reparations” to the people and communities most harmed by it.

“When I see images of people using marijuana and images of people who are now trying to run legitimate marijuana businesses, they’re almost all white,” she said. “After 40 years of impoverished Black men getting prison time for selling weed, white men are planning to get rich doing the same things.”

Read the ACLU’s report at

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