Racial disparity found in county marijuana arrests

ACLU finds that blacks are 6.6 times more likely to be arrested than whites

Published: Wednesday, June 12, 2013 at 2:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, June 12, 2013 at 2:00 p.m.

Law enforcement officers in Alachua County arrest more than six times as many black defendants as white defendants on marijuana charges, although research shows use of the drug is about as common among blacks as whites.

The racial disparity in marijuana arrests in Alachua County is among the highest in the state and above the national average, according to an analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The data indicate that blacks in Alachua County are 6.6 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites, ranking the county fourth in Florida among counties with high racial disparities.

The analysis does not surprise Evelyn Foxx, president of the Alachua County NAACP. She said marijuana arrests are reflective of general racial disparities in Alachua County.

"Some of this was reported through our state NAACP. It's not only marijuana. If you look at things like kids suspended from school, we rank higher than anybody else in the state, so it's not something that surprises me at all," Foxx said. "It's obvious that it appears to be racial profiling. There is no way for it to be anything other than racial profiling."

When it comes to marijuana use, about 14 percent of black people and 12 percent of white people reported in 2010 that they had used the drug during the previous year, according to data the ACLU obtained from the National Drug Health Survey, a Health and Human Services publication. Among younger people ages 18-25, use was greater among whites.

Officer Ben Tobias, spokesman for the Gainesville Police Department, said Chief Tony Jones is aware of racial disparities in arrests for a range of crimes.

GPD has received grants of $25,000 for each of the next two years and has contracted with the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Children's Law and Policy to oversee a process that will include a review of data, policies and procedures, practices and other actions centered on the handling of juveniles who commit crime.

"Chief Jones and the command staff are very serious about disproportionate minority contacts. We have been talking about that for a while," Tobias said. "We were looking into that even before this ACLU report. It is definitely something we are concerned about, and we are taking the appropriate steps to figure out why the number is so disproportionate and what we can do about it."

The ACLU analyzed data from 2001 to 2010 from the FBI/Uniform Crime Reporting program and from the U.S. Census Bureau for its wide-ranging report.

In 2010, Alachua County's white arrest rate for marijuana was 189 per 100,000 population, while the black arrest rate was 1,254 per 100,000 — 6.6 times more for blacks than whites.

Sarasota County was tops in Florida, with blacks 10 times more likely to be arrested, while the state disparity rate was 4.2 times.

Nationwide, blacks are more than 3.7 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana, according to the ACLU.

The ACLU advocates legalizing and regulating marijuana, stating in the report that the war on marijuana is a failure.

"In 2010, there was one marijuana arrest every 37 seconds, and states spent combined over $3.6 billion enforcing marijuana possession laws," the report states. "The report also finds that, on average, a black person is 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though blacks and whites use marijuana at similar rates."

Foxx said the county NAACP is participating in several initiatives aimed at reducing crime and racial disparities, including GPD's.

One initiative — the School to Prison Pipeline — addresses the high rate of arrests of students.

Data from the Southern Poverty Law Center that was presented at a recent meeting on the subject showed that the number of students who get arrested at schools in Alachua County is more than double the state average.

The state rate is 10 arrests per 1,000, but the Alachua County rate is 23 per 1,000.

"We are hoping to work together as a community on these obvious disparities," Foxx said.

Cindy Swirko is a Gainesville Sun staff writer. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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