November 2nd is 11 days away, and all the stops are out in the campaign over marijuana legalization in California. Recent headlines haven’t been promising for cannabis proponents – the latest University of Southern California/Los Angeles Times poll show only 39 percent of voters are in favor of Proposition 19 (Pro-pot advocates say their own survey shows 56 percent of voters support the ballot measure). United States Attorney General Eric Holder has vowed to “vigorously enforce” federal drug laws if Prop 19 is passed – meaning D.C. and federal law enforcement agencies would still treat cannabis as a Schedule 1 controlled substance.
Despite the negative press, one of the most-publicized arguments for decriminalization is the effect it would have on law enforcement. As the argument goes, police officers would shift away from arresting people for marijuana possession and sales, freeing up staff and resources to pursue other problems at hand.
According to a report released today by the Drug Policy Alliance and the California conference of the NAACP, fewer arrests for marijuana would also mean fewer people of color going to jail. Over half a million people were arrested over the past decade for marijuana offenses in California, most of them black or Latino. From 2006 through 2008, officers in 25 major California cities arrested blacks on marijuana charges at four to twelve times the rates of whites, even though whites are statistically more likely to use marijuana.
Legalization has divided California law enforcement. Although the major statewide officers associations – including the California Narcotics Officers’ Association – are against Prop 19, individual officers and police chiefs have come out in favor of the measure. And the argument that Prop 19 will decrease the number of blacks incarcerated for drug offenses has attracted the support of the National Black Police Association. Both the NBPA and the Drug Policy Alliance/NAACP report present legalization as a civil rights issue, since drug charges pose significant barriers to future educational and employment opportunities.
Notably, this report does not view Prop 19 as a silver bullet for law enforcement’s perceived “double standard” for whites and people of color – even if marijuana possession is reduced from a misdemeanor to an infraction (this is already the case in California for up to an ounce of cannabis), the report’s authors still believe police will cite blacks and Latinos far more frequently than whites.