MN study finds racial disparities in marijuana arrests
DULUTH — Black Minnesotans were 6.4 times more likely to be arrested for possessing marijuana than whites, according an analysis of 2011 public records by Minnesota 2020, a self-described “progressive think tank.”
Nicole Simms, the author of a study released Wednesday, was in Duluth to talk about how the elevated arrest rates for minority populations only deepen racial disparities already present in society when it comes to income, housing and employment.
She said that in addition to the fines, legal bills, treatment costs and detention people face after an arrest for possession of marijuana, they also often are saddled with collateral expenses related to job loss, loss of public housing eligibility, difficulty finding future employment, lack of adequate health care and other complications.
Simms said the cumulative financial impact of an individual felony marijuana possession conviction can range from $40,000 to $76,000.
Simms explained that she could not say how St. Louis County stacked up to other parts of Minnesota because it was home to such a small number of black Americans as to deem any findings statistically inconclusive. However, she did note that Native Americans in the county were twice as likely as whites to be charged for marijuana possession.
Reyna Crow, a Native American who calls Duluth home, said the study’s findings came as little surprise to her.
“Any marginalized minority population, whether it’s African-American or indigenous, tends to be under greater scrutiny by law enforcement,” she said. “There seems to be a tendency to assume that people of color are up to no good and that we’re more likely to be drug users.”
Simms’ report found that while men younger than 25 who were Native American or black were more likely to report marijuana use than young white males, this relatively small disparity couldn’t begin to explain away the disproportionate arrest rate.
Simms outlined several steps that could be taken to reduce racial inequities, including training to reduce racial bias in the law enforcement and justice system, less severe punishment guidelines for marijuana possession or outright legalization of the drug.
Randy Quast, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, called for the latter at a news conference announcing the study’s release.
“It’s less dangerous than beer, less risky than children’s cough syrup and less addictive than coffee,” Quast said of marijuana. “We think it should be legal for all adult use.”
Crow is of a similar mind.
“I think it’s irrational for us not to be talking about the full legalization of marijuana when we’re wasting all kinds of money on such a discriminatory drug war,” she said.
Nathan Ness, a director of organizing for Minnesota NORML, said outlawing marijuana only pushes its sale into an underground market, often fueling crime and violence. He claims society would be better served by selling it in a more regulated setting.
“We don’t agree that marijuana is a ‘gateway drug,’ ” Ness said. “Prohibition is the gateway to other drug use, because it exposes people to an underground market where much harder drugs are readily available.”