Citing high black arrests, NAACP endorses pot legalization

On Monday, the California State Conference of the NAACP announced its “unconditional endorsement” of a November initiative that would legalize the recreational use of marijuana. 

On Tuesday, the NAACP said why. According to a just-released study by the Drug Policy Alliance, blacks are far more likely to be arrested for pot possession than whites — even though statistically, blacks use marijuana at lower rates than whites. The Alliance, a national advocacy group, favors treatment rather than arrest or imprisonment for people suffering from drug dependency.

Meanwhile, a prominent African-American opponent of the initiative accused the group’s leader, Alice Huffman, of selling out “to the highest bidder” with the endorsement.

At a press conference at the California NAACP’s Sacramento headquarters, the group’s president, Alice Huffman, portrayed marijuana laws as a means of criminalizing young black men. She was joined by several other African-America leaders, including Aubry Stone, president of the California Black Chamber of Commerce, and Neil Franklin of the group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP).

“It is time for them to stop using my community to fill the prisons,” Huffman said. “Once you get into the system, the next time you get arrested, they bump you up [to more serious charges].”

Defendants are usually given a summons that “looks like a traffic ticket,” the report noted. They’re not given a public defender, and usually end up paying a fine that can add up to hundreds of dollars. But afterwards, these people have officially pleaded guilty to a drug offense. This, in turn, shows up on criminal databases and can come up years later when, for instance, the person applies for a job.

“For young, low-income African Americans and Latinos – who use marijuana less than young whites, and who already face numerous barriers and hurdles – a criminal record for the ‘drug crime’ of marijuana possession can seriously harm their life chances,” the report said.

The study also found that total marijuana arrests have gone up, even while overall crime and arrest rates have been going down. There were more than 60,000 arrests for marijuana possession in California in 2008, according to the report, compared to 20,000 in 1990. These arrest records come from the U.S. Government’s FBI Uniform Crime Report.

Arrests for “youth of color” rose four times faster than that, from 3,100 in 1990 to 16,300 in 2008. The study found that blacks and Latinos make up 44 percent of California’s population, but 56 percent of marijuana possession arrests. This was despite the fact that whites were slightly more likely than blacks to have had used marijuana in the past month; whites were about 50 percent more likely than Latinos to have used the drug in the preceding month.

These statistics held true across California — in rural and urban areas, and in areas with both high and low African-American populations, compared to the state average. In every one of California’s 25 largest counties, blacks were arrested at higher rates than whites. Across these 25 counties, representing 90 percent of the state’s population, blacks represent 7 percent of the population but 20 percent of arrests for marijuana possession. In Los Angeles County, blacks are 10 percent of the population, but represent 30 percent of marijuana arrests. Overall, they’re arrested for pot at 332 percent of the rate of whites.

The marijuana legalization initiative was put on the November ballot by Richard Lee, the founder of Oaksterdam University, an Oakland school that teaches people how to get into the medical marijuana business. On Monday, the Secretary of State’s Office gave it the designation of Proposition 19.

One major voice opposing Proposition 19 is Bishop Ron Allen, the president of a group called the International Faith Based Coalition. He said marijuana is a gateway drug, and legalizing it would lead to more crime and violence in poor communities. As evidence, he pointed to the murders last week of two workers in separate armed robberies at medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles. Other opponents include the state’s narcotic enforcement officers and other law enforcement groups.

He also claimed that 60 percent of marijuana arrests are of whites.

“These statistics are not correct,” Allen said of the Drug Policy Alliance study.

Allen is a recovering addict himself, having moved from pot to crack in his early years. One of Allen’s colleagues in the cause, Elder Jesse Williams, said his own 14 year-old son is a marijuana addict who has robbed people at gun and knife-point, and even stolen his own mother’s car, to satisfy his fix.

“Legalizing marijuana will never be the solution to stopping black arrests,” Allen said. “She knows that. It’s a smokescreen.”

He also questioned Huffman’s motives to the endorsement, saying, “We are afraid the good name of the NAACP is being sold to the highest bidder.”

A new SurveyUSA poll conducted back in April shows that Allen’s message isn’t resonating with African-American voters.

The telephone poll of 500 adults conducted found the idea of legalizing pot leading 56 percent to 42 percent. Among African-Americans surveyed, 67 percent supported the idea, while only 29 percent were opposed. Fifty-nine percent of white voters supported the idea, along with 58 percent of Asians and only 45 percent of Hispanics.

The results were also heavily tilted by gender and age. Men support legalizing marijuana by a 65 percent to 32 percent margin. Women oppose the idea, 46 percent to 51 percent. Three quarters of voters under 35 support the idea—the only age group that gave it majority support.

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