Accounting for the “racial gap” in D.C. marijuana arrests

The Washington Post reports that a “clear racial gap persists in District’s pot arrests.” In other words, D.C. police officers (a majority of whom are Black, by the way) are far more likely to arrest Blacks than Whites for marijuana-related offenses.

According to the Post, Blacks account for almost 90 percent of those arrested on marijuana-related charges in D.C. and 84 percent of those arrested for public consumption of the substance. Yet, they make up slightly less than half of the city’s population, and studies claim that marijuana use is equally prevalent among Whites and Blacks.

The Post notes that this racial gap persists even though marijuana arrests have declined by more than half in the past five years. Such arrests have declined due to reforms intended to decrease arrests in the hope of eliminating or reducing the racial gap.

Neither the city nor the Post should be surprised that reducing the number of arrests didn’t have the desired racial impact. As Jim Scanlan has shown, and we have often pointed out, reducing an adverse outcome — here, a certain type of arrest — tends to increase relative racial differences in rates of experiencing the outcome.

As for why the racial gap exists in the first place, the answer is so obvious that even the Post supplies it (if you read far enough). Reasonably enough, the city deploys its police officers primarily to areas plagued by high rates of violent crime. These areas are populated mostly by Blacks.

Thus, even if Whites are using marijuana as much as Blacks are, officers don’t often encounter White users.

But why do officers arrest Black users? After all, as the Post says, marijuana-related charges usually are either dropped or pleaded out with only a probationary sentence.

However, a marijuana arrest can be an entree for the police to obtain information about more serious crimes. As one defense lawyer told the Post, officers can pat down people found to be using marijuana for illegal weapons and check for outstanding warrants. They can also try to turn users into informants or state witnesses.

This seems like good policing practice to me. But whatever one thinks of it, one cannot rationally attribute the racial gap in marijuana arrests to racism by the D.C. police force. Nor can one hope to reduce that gap by reducing the total number of such arrests.

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