By Frank Knaack, Director of Public Policy and Communications

Yesterday, the Governor announced his new “automatic” program to restore voting rights to non-violent offenders. Unfortunately, despite requests from the ACLU of Virginia and other advocates, the program offers no relief to thousands who’ve been disenfranchised because of felony drug convictions. And, the ACLU’s recently released report, Marijuana in Black and White: Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests, illustrates why the Governor’s refusal to treat drug offenses as non-violent offenses for purposes of restoration of voting rights (as they are for sentencing) means that, inevitably, disproportionately fewer black Virginians will have their votes restored than white Virginians.   This is just one more reason why it is past time to ask ourselves why racial disparities in drug arrests and sentencing continue to exist in our criminal justice system, and whether the cost of marijuana prohibition (in dollars and ruined lives) is worth it.

Over $3.6 Billion - that is how much money states spent enforcing marijuana possession laws in 2010 alone.   Between 2001 and 2010, law enforcement made 8,244,943 marijuana arrests.  Guess how many of those arrests were for possession?  Eighty-eight percent.  Yet, despite billions spent and millions arrested, the U.S. is the world’s largest consumer of illegal drugs.  And, it gets worse.  While African Americans and whites use marijuana at comparable rates, African Americans have been disproportionately arrested.  These are just a few of the findings in the ACLU’s recently released report, Marijuana in Black and White: Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests.

Here are more of the real world implications of Virginia’s war on marijuana beyond the adverse consequences for restoration of voting rights.  In 2010, Virginia spent nearly $70,000,000 on marijuana possession enforcement and had the twelfth highest number of marijuana arrests in the U.S.  And, African Americans made up a disproportionate number of those arrested.  Overall, in 2010 African Americans in Virginia made up 19.8% of the population, yet received 43.4% of all marijuana possession arrests.  And, in many areas of Virginia it was even worse for African Americans.  In Fairfax and Loudoun for example, African Americans were approximately three times more likely to be arrested for possession.  In Arlington, African Americans were almost eight times more likely to be arrested.  And, the numbers nationwide are just as alarming.
  • Nationwide, an African American was over 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, despite comparable usage rates.
  • In the states with the worst disparities, African Americans were on average more than six times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as whites. In counties with the worst disparities, African Americans were ten, fifteen, or even thirty times more likely to be arrested.
  • The racial disparities existed in all regions of the U.S., as well as in both large and small counties, cities and rural areas, and in both high- and low-income communities. Disparities were also consistently high whether African Americans made up a small or a large percentage of a county’s overall population.
But, there is some good news!  Public opinion across the U.S. is shifting in favor of some form of marijuana legalization.  In Virginia, 72% support legalizing medical marijuana and over 40% support its recreational use.  But, while public opinion is shifting in a positive direction, it is clear that our work is just beginning.  Join us in our effort to reform these ineffective, expensive, and discriminatory laws.  Sign up for our E-News and/or Grassroots Lobbying Action Alerts.

Hear the latest installment of the Civil Liberties Minute, produced by ACLU of Massachusetts, entitled,

"It's time to raze the prisons to the ground"

Recorded by longtime ACLU attorney and radio commentator Bill Newman--and introduced by a variety of ACLU supporters, such as poet Martín Espada, comedian Lewis Black, and 91-year-old activist Francis Crowe--the Civil Liberties Minutes cover a range of issues, including free speech, racial justice, and equal rights.