A black person in Fresno is nearly four times more likely to be cited for marijuana possession than a white person facing the same offense.
That’s according to a new analysis by the Drug Policy Alliance and the American Civil Liberties Union, which found racial, ethnic and age disparities in marijuana policing.
Low-level marijuana possession in California was reduced from a misdemeanor to an infraction in 2011. Possession of under one ounce of marijuana is now punishable by a fine of up to $100. Misdemeanor arrests for marijuana possession have since plummeted.
White people consume marijuana at similar rates to black people and more than Latinos, according to the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. But data from 2011 and 2012 provided by the Los Angeles and Fresno police departments show young blacks and Latinos in those cities were issued citations more often than whites.
Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer declined to comment about the report.
Fresno data analyzed by the alliance show that, per capita, black people were cited 3.6 times more often than white people, and Latinos were cited 1.7 times more often. The vast majority of infractions – 90 percent – were issued to men or boys. Los Angeles had similar figures.
Fresno and Los Angeles were the only two police departments that provided the Drug Policy Alliance with data.
Put differently, black people accounted for 21.3 percent of citations over the two-year period, but made up just 7.7 percent of Fresno’s population in 2012. Meanwhile, whites made up 19.3 percent of citations but 30.3 percent of the population.
Amanda Reiman, manager of marijuana law and policy for the Drug Policy Alliance, said Fresno is a snapshot of a national issue. Police don’t necessarily target people of color smoking marijuana, she said; rather, the report reveals systemic, hidden racial biases that need to be addressed.
“Some people might think marijuana is all but legal in California,” she said. “But some are still getting in trouble for it more often than others.”
If you don’t think there’s discrimination in Fresno, think again.
Rebeca Rangel, Fresno activist
It’s likely that disparities among Latinos are actually greater, the report says, because Latinos are sometimes misidentified by law enforcement and self-identify in different ways on the Census.
The disparities are worse than arrest rates before 2011, when marijuana possession was still a misdemeanor offense. In 2010, according to the report, black Californians were arrested 2.2 times more per capita than whites. California Department of Justice figures show blacks that year made up 16.4 percent of marijuana possession arrests but about 7 percent of the population.
Reiman said one possible explanation is that police now use it as a tool to question people. Because it no longer involves a lot of paperwork and an arrest, police might be more indiscriminate about who they cite, she said.
“Police want to question them, so they use the fact that there’s marijuana use going on as a way to infiltrate this group.”
Rebeca Rangel, a local community organizer who is co-chair of the Central California Criminal Justice Committee and a member of the Fresno police Chief’s Advisory Board, was taken aback by the findings.
“Law enforcement is incapable of applying the law equally. What gives?” she said. “That is another black eye for Fresno.”
21.3 The percentage of citations in 2011 and 2012 given to black Fresno residents, though they made up 7.7 percent of the population
In Fresno, a marijuana infraction carries a base fine of $70 but, depending on the person’s prior convictions and extra court fees, costs between $200 and $500 total.
Though the infraction carries no jail time, the report says it still can pose a substantial burden for young and low-income people. More than half of those receiving marijuana infractions in Fresno were 29 or younger, and 25 percent were between 16 and 21.
Unlike misdemeanor arrests, infraction data are kept at county traffic courts and not collected at the state level. Reiman said that makes it much more challenging to analyze marijuana enforcement using different demographic information.
Fresno and Los Angeles were the only two police departments that provided the Drug Policy Alliance with data – and that took a year. Reiman said she asked all major cities in the state, but some didn’t have digitized records, data broken down by gender, race and age, or enough staff to spend time redacting personal information from the records.
The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice found that black people in states where marijuana is legalized are still arrested at higher rates than people of other races.
The Drug Policy Alliance report says reducing penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana doesn’t go far enough. It notes that Californians will vote in November on the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, which would legalize possession of up to an ounce.
But data from the two California cities reflect recent findings from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, which found that black people in states where marijuana is legalized still are arrested at higher rates than people of other races. In Colorado, a report from the state’s Department of Public Safety found that racial disparities among teens arrested for marijuana offenses are worse now than before recreational use of the drug was legalized.
Reiman said everything that doesn’t inhibit public safety should be removed from the criminal code so that people aren’t subjected to disparate policing. She said a full overhaul of the policing system also is needed.
“If we want long-term change, we need to understand why we have this unconscious bias against people of color in policing,” she said.
Rangel said she knows Fresno is far from the only city with racial disparities in policing. She said she respects the Police Department but is disappointed when new information highlights officers’ behavior that causes her to have concerns.
“We wouldn’t have to say ‘Black Lives Matter’ if their lives were treated like they matter,” she said. “If you don’t think there’s discrimination in Fresno, think again.”