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derrick z. jackson

US is a segregated joint on marijuana

What a strange and segregated drug trip America is on. On one level, the national mood toward marijuana has softened, with legalization in Washington and Colorado and the approval of medical marijuana in states including Massachusetts. Television shows regularly feature the recreational use of marijuana. The Globe recently listed more than a dozen shows where characters chill out or even work in a cannabis haze. In one scene in “Mad Men,” a character walks into the office, sniffs pot, and declares, “I smell creativity.”

I smell a cultural rat.

The vast majority of actors and actresses in these shows are white. The shows include “The Office,” “Parenthood,” “Workaholics,” “Hot in Cleveland,” “Shameless,” and “Californication.” For millions of white television viewers, marijuana has wafted into another form of entertainment.

But for hundreds of thousands of African-Americans, possession remains a passport to prison.

In an unprecedented state-by-state report on marijuana possession arrest rates, the American Civil Liberties Union this month found that between 2001 and 2010, African-Americans were nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white Americans. That is despite the fact that marijuana use is similar across racial lines and actually higher among whites in the 18-to-25 age group, which has higher rates of arrest. A third of white Americans in that group say they smoke marijuana, compared with about a quarter of African-Americans.


But it is black users who are smoked by the criminal justice system. Since 1995, the number of annual arrests for marijuana possession has soared from about 525,000 to about 800,000. Meanwhile, white arrest rates have remained virtually unchanged. The disparate crackdowns occur in states with both large and small African-American populations. Vermont has a black marijuana possession arrest rate 4.4 times that of white users, the same as Alabama.

And it does not matter if a state has a conservative or liberal reputation. In supposedly progressive Massachusetts, where marijuana arrest rates are among the lowest in the nation, African-American users are still four times more likely to be arrested than white users statewide. In Barnstable and Plymouth Counties, African-Americans were more than 10 times more likely to be arrested. The result is a commonwealth where African-Americans make up 26 percent of marijuana possession arrests despite being just 8 percent of the population.

The ACLU report blames the surge in marijuana arrests on a combination of zero-tolerance policing and the increased reliance by police departments on computerized crime data technology that creates “incentives for police departments to generate high numbers of drug arrests, including high numbers of marijuana arrests, to meet or exceed internal and external performance measures.”


It seems that nothing was learned in the quarter century in which possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine, stereotypically associated with African Americans, triggered mandatory five-year prison sentences, but it took possession of 500 grams of powdered cocaine, associated with white users, to trigger the same sentence. The vast imprisoning of African-Americans finally offended Congress into reducing crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparities in 2010.

Three years later, we are in an equally offensive war, one in which the ACLU says police cast “a wide net” over black marijuana users as “middle- and upper-class white communities use marijuana without legal consequence or even fear of entanglement in the criminal justice system.” The ACLU recommends the legalization of marijuana to “allow law enforcement to focus on serious crime.”

But it is much more complicated than that. Legalization does not address why one set of Americans has the privilege to laugh off drug use and hide it behind hedges and picket fences while another set is plucked off street corners to be fingerprinted, booked, and have their employment and education opportunities tainted or ruined.

It is a national question worth visiting by entities ranging from the Congressional Sentencing Commission and the Justice Department to the cultural myth makers in Hollywood. In one scene in “Mad Men,” a woman pulls out joints from her bikini. That is considered sexy entertainment.


Not so for a black woman pulling a joint out of her bra in the wrong place. On that score, America remains a segregated joint.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at