Weed’s Legal in D.C. But If You’re Black, You’re Still at High Risk of Arrest

By Shani Saxon Sep 17, 2020

As calls to reform racist policing policies continue to grow louder, The Washington Post reported on Tuesday (September 15) that Washington, D.C. police are more likely to arrest Black people for marijuana-related offenses.

That’s in spite of the fact that marijuana was legalized in the city five years ago. Proponents of marijuana reform in the nation’s capital were initially hopeful that the change would “end racial disparities in enforcement,” according to The Post. 

Reports The Post:

Although marijuana arrests have declined by more than half, African Americans still account for just under 90 percent of those arrested on all pot-related charges, according to a Washington Post analysis, even as they make up 45 percent of the city’s population.

And while studies show that marijuana use is equally prevalent among Blacks and Whites, 84 percent of more than 900 people arrested for public consumption in the nation’s capital were African American in the four years after legalization. 

Defense attorneys and advocates told The Post that officers target low-wage earning, mostly Black communities because “that’s where officer deployments and investigations of violent crime are concentrated.” In other words, officials use marijuana arrests as reason to investigate other offenses. 

Paul Zukerberg, a defense lawyer who has represented clients for weed-related offenses, told The Post that officers use underhanded tactics to corner people. “They can use the odor of burning marijuana or street sales to pat people down for weapons or check for outstanding warrants,” he said. “They try to turn people into involuntary informants or state witnesses.”

According to The Post:

D.C. Superior Court does not maintain statistics for the dispositions of marijuana-related arrests. A Post review of more than 100 such cases shows that charges are often dropped or prosecutors negotiate plea bargains with probationary sentences. When defendants refuse a plea, prosecutors in some instances have abandoned cases, especially when relatively small amounts of marijuana are involved. 

Regardless of how a marijuana-related arrest turns out, Zukerberg pointed out to The Post that lives can ultimately be ruined. “It can hurt people’s chances of getting employment and passing background checks while the case is pending,” he said. “And a case can be pending for weeks, months and years.”

D.C. isn’t alone when it comes to racial disparity in enforcement in cities where weed is legal. Marijuana was legalized in California in 2018, but a July report in Crosstown shows that Black people are still disproportionally arrested for marijuana-related offenses.

Per Crosstown:

In 2016, Black people accounted for 32.2% of all marijuana arrests in Los Angeles. Last year, that percentage rose to 42.3%, according to LAPD dataBlack people make up 8.9% of the city’s population. 

Marijuana law reforms don’t protect communities of color from facing possession arrests, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. "Believe it or not, despite the marijuana law reforms in several states, there are still more arrests for marijuana possession every year than for all violent crimes combined,” the organization says in a statement posted on its web site. 

According to the Drug Policy Alliance:

These arrests can create permanent criminal records that can easily be found on the internet by employers, landlords, schools, credit agencies and banks. And it can result in loss of employment, financial aid, housing and child custody. In many U.S. states, a marijuana possession arrest can still lead to months or even years behind bars. Clearly, a marijuana arrest is no small matter.

D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), chairman of the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, told The Post that these disparities are “very discouraging,” especially as the country faces a racial reckoning in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by officers in Minneapolis. 

“It gets back to the heart of what the protests have been about — uneven and unfair enforcement in policing along racial lines,” Allen told The Post. “We can change the laws, but if we don’t change the nature of policing, we’re not creating the impact we want.”