Racism in Drug Laws

Dylan MatthewsDylan Matthews presents this morning, The Black/White Marijuana Arrest Gap, in Nine Charts. But why wade through so many charts unless you have some unusual chart mania? His “nine charts” come from a new report from the ACLU, The War on Marijuana in Black and White (pdf). And I’ve taken two of the graphs (figures 10 and 21) and put them together. They paint a very clear picture:

Rasism in Cannabis Arrests

The chart shows that while whites and blacks use cannabis at about the same rate, blacks are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for possession. And this chart even underestimates the problem. Blacks between the ages of 18 and 25 are less likely to use cannabis than whites of that age. And all blacks are less likely to have ever used the drug.

Michelle Alexander explains in her exceptional book The New Jim Crow, the drug laws (especially those for cannabis) are a form of social control: a way of keeping young black men especially disenfranchised. When excluding those who are not allowed to vote, black men vote at an extremely high rate. And that is the point: the once great white nation wants to hold on as long as it can.

These disproportionate arrests are not an accident. And they have nothing to do with drugs.


I always use the term “cannabis,” because the term “marijuana” is itself a racist term. It was meant to associate cannabis with Mexicans, just as opium had been associated with the Chinese and cocaine with southern blacks.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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