ACLU Report Finds Discrimination in Massachusetts’ Marijuana Arrests

Black Massachusetts residents face arrest rate that is 3.3 times greater, study finds.

Being black in Massachusetts still means facing a greater likelihood of being arrested for having marijuana, according to a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union to be released Thursday.

Members of the ACLU teamed up with the Yes on 4 campaign—advocates for passage of a ballot question that would legalize the drug for recreational use—to publicize the report this week. They were joined by Judge Leslie Harris, City Councilor Tito Jackson, and others at Roxbury District Court for a press conference this morning.

For its study, the ACLU examined FBI data and found that black Massachusetts residents were arrested at 3.3 times the rate of their white peers for marijuana possession in 2014, although equal proportions of black and white people use the drug. That rate was 7.1 times higher when it comes to arrests for selling the drug.

“Racial disparities are a disturbing feature of our current marijuana policy. Black people are arrested for marijuana possession at 10 times the rate of white people in some counties – despite the fact Black people and white people use marijuana at the same rate,” ACLU Racial Justice Director Rahsaan Hall says in a prepared statement. “Taxing and regulating marijuana is an important step towards reducing the harm that current policies cause to people of color, particularly Black people, and it will generate hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue that can be reinvested in our communities.”

The report is designed to challenge the assertions that opponents of legalization have made this year, Yes on 4 says in a press release.

The opposition campaign has argued that arrests for marijuana have fallen sharply since the state removed criminal penalties for small amounts of marijuana in 2008, and made it legal for medical use in 2012—undercutting the urgency of making the drug fully legal for recreational purposes. The ACLU’s study found that the number of marijuana arrests in the state dropped 93 percent between 2008 and 2014.

Also on Thursday, the Massachusetts Public Health Association announced it would oppose Question 4,  and said the state should instead “support more meaningful criminal justice reform that will reverse the institutionalized discrimination in our drug policies and protect public health.”