Arrested for Marijuana? Chances are it's Because of Your Skin Color
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand says legalizing marijuana would benefit communities of color, particularly in New York City.
Gillibrand says people of color are arrested for marijuana possession at a much higher rate than white people, despite similar marijuana use.
"Black and Latino people in NYC are arrested at TEN times the rate of white people for virtually the same rate of marijuana usage," Gillibrand tweeted.
New York state is exploring the possibility of legalizing marijuana for recreational use. The state Department of Health has begun a study on how legalization would affect residents.
So are blacks and Latinos arrested ten times as often as white people for marijuana?
New York City data
Gillibrand relied on data from a February article published by Politico New York, which cited data from the state Division of Criminal Justice Services. The agency provided that data to us for this article.
The numbers confirm Gillibrand’s claim: Eighty-six percent of people arrested for criminal possession of marijuana in New York City last year were either black or Hispanic. Five percent were classified as "other" by the agency. Nine percent of those arrested were white.
The agency tracked 17,880 total criminal marijuana arrests in New York City last year. Almost half of the people arrested — 8,565 — were black. Some 6,853 were Hispanic and 890 were identified as "other." Only 1,572 of the offenders were white.
There are a few caveats to the data. For one, it doesn’t include every marijuana arrest in the city. The data only tracks arrests for burning marijuana in public or possessing more than 25 grams at a time. More severe crimes, like selling marijuana, are not included in the numbers.
The data also excludes cases where a more serious crime was involved. For example, if marijuana was found on someone pulled over for driving while intoxicated, the agency would not report the drug possession in this dataset.
The gap is not as wide outside New York City, state data shows.
There were 5,417 of the same type of marijuana arrests upstate and on Long Island in 2017, according to the data. Of those, about 31 percent were white, 37 percent were black, and 25 percent were Hispanic. The remaining arrests were marked as "other."
That still means about two-thirds of those arrested for marijuana possession outside New York City were people of color in 2017.
Marijuana use by race
Gillibrand also said the rate of marijuana use is the same regardless of race.
The Politico article cites data compiled by the American Civil Liberties Union to support that claim. Fourteen percent of blacks and 12 percent of whites reported using marijuana in the past year in 2010, according to federal data. The ACLU analyzed data from the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program and the U.S. Census Bureau.
Jon Gettman, an associate professor of criminal justice at Shenandoah University, used the same data to calculate more recent numbers for this article. About 14 percent of whites and 16 percent of blacks reported using marijuana in the past year in 2016. Data previously compiled by Gettman for the Brookings Institution showed the rates of use by whites and blacks have been about the same since at least 2001.
Gillibrand said blacks and Latinos in New York City are arrested at 10 times the rate of whites for marijuana possession, despite using it at about the same rate as whites.
State data proves Gillibrand’s claim. Nine percent of people arrested for marijuana possession in the city last year were white versus 86 percent that were black or hispanic.
Analyses of federal data also shows white people report using marijuana about as much as black people.
Her claim is true.