Will marijuana decriminalization stop DC’s racially skewed arrests? (Vox Media)

By GERMAN LOPEZ | July 19, 2014

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The DC City Council earlier this year approved one of the most relaxed decriminalization laws in the country. The law authorizes a $25 civil fine for possessing one ounce or less of marijuana and allows cops to seize the drug. It also prohibits public pot use with the threat of a 60-day jail penalty. Harsher penalties kick in for someone possessing larger amounts of pot.

The goal, according to advocates, is to reduce massive racial disparities in DC’s arrest rates. Although black and white Americans tend to smoke pot at similar rates, an ACLU report found that black DC residents were eight times more likely to be arrested than white residents in 2010. DC’s overall arrest rate for pot possession was also among the highest in the nation at 846 arrests per 100,000 residents, compared to an average of about 241 per 100,000 around the country.

The data cited in the ACLU report, however, also raises questions about whether decriminalization always evens out racial disparities in marijuana arrest rates. In the states that decriminalized pot by 2010, the arrest rate was nearly 254 per 100,000 and black people were nearly 3.6 times more likely to be arrested. Among the states that kept criminal penalties, the numbers were about the same: the arrest rate was 237 per 100,000 and black people were nearly 3.7 times more likely to be arrested.

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