Texas Puts a Lot of People in Jail for Weed, Especially Black and (Probably) Brown People
The Sierra Blanca border patrol checkpoint is, at this point, the stuff of legend: If you're a musician and you pass through there, you're going to get popped for pot possession. You just are. Snoop Dogg, Fiona Apple, Willie Nelson -- all of them drove on Interstate 10, found themselves in that tiny West Texas border town and paid what we can safely dub the Dankness Tax: search, seizure, arrest, brief imprisonment, unflattering stripe-clad portrait.
But as the ACLU recently discovered, the war on pot doesn't limit itself to Sierra Blanca. It's more like the entire state of Texas. According to a new national report they've just released, we're near the top of the list on the numbers of people arrested for pot possession and the amount of money we spend to keep them locked up.
Also, you're about twice as likely to be stopped, searched and arrested for pot possession if you're black in Texas. Except in rural areas, of course, where it's more like 20 times more likely. And Texas isn't even counting separately the number of Latinos arrested for pot possession, which the ACLU suspects is similarly high.
The ACLU looked at FBI stats and census data from 2001 to 2010 to compare the number of pot arrests with the racial demographics of all 50 states. They found 8 million pot arrests nationwide in that time period, 88 percent of which were for possession. Pot possession now accounts for nearly half of all drug arrests. In 2010, someone was arrested for pot every 37 seconds.
And although black Americans and white ones use marijuana at virtually identical rates, black people are nearly 4 times more likely to be arrested than whites nationwide. And even misdemeanor drug arrests can cost thousands of dollars in court costs, fines and probation fees, not to mention the permanent black mark on your record that pops up every time you need a loan, a job or public assistance, among many other things.
In 2010, the two states with the most pot arrests were New York and Texas; we arrested 74,286 that year alone. Texas has also had the greatest increase between 2001 and 2010 in the numbers of people arrested for pot: 20,681 more arrests in 2010. That year, the state paid about $20 million to keep those people locked up in state and county jail facilities.
In Texas, black people constitute only about 12 percent of the population, yet make up more than 25 percent of the pot arrests. You're 2.33 percent more likely to get arrested for potting it up while black in Texas, which is, surprisingly, a lot lower than several other states. In Iowa, for example, black individuals are eight times more likely to be arrested for pot possession. Same goes for D.C. (Incidentally, Hawaii and Alaska have the lowest rates of racial disparity for pot arrests.)
Yet the ACLU believes that Texas and several other states may be artificially decreasing their racial disparity arrest numbers by counting Latinos as white in the arrest data, rather than breaking them out into a separate category. They write that of the 10 states with the lowest racial disparity in arrests, seven of them have the highest Latino populations. In other words, they say:
In these states, a portion, if not a significant number, of marijuana possession arrests are of Latinos, but the FBI/UCR likely classifies them as "white" arrests, thereby reducing artificially the black-white arrest disparities to the extent that Latinos are arrested at higher rates than whites. That is, if many of those "white" arrests are actually arrests of Latinos, and if the Latino arrest rate is greater than the white arrest rate, the actual black-white arrest rates are much greater than the disparities contained in the present data. How much greater, unfortunately, cannot be ascertained from the present FBI/UCR data.
In Dallas County, just in case you're curious (or feeling a little paranoid), you're almost three times more likely to be arrested for potting up while black. That's nothing compared to Van Zandt County, though, where you'd be 34 times more likely to get popped, or Cooke County, where your chance is 24 times greater.
All told, the ACLU estimates that in 2010, Texas spent about $251,648,800 to enforce its marijuana possession laws. Nationwide, the ACLU concludes, the war on pot, like the larger war on drugs is "a failure" and comes at "a tremendous human and financial cost."
But only if you're concerned about things like human and financial costs. Otherwise we're doing just fine.