Are Police Racially Biased in Marijuana Arrests?

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Photo by Paige Filler via Flickr

Although our legal system’s claim to legitimacy depends on the public’s perception of fairness and equity in the decision to arrest, debate persists as to whether the police are racially discriminatory when enforcing drug laws.

Evidence supporting this view emanates from the observation that Blacks are arrested for drugs in numbers far out of proportion to their numbers in the general population, especially for less dangerous types of drugs such as marijuana.

The Black arrest rate for marijuana possession in 2010 was 716 per 100,000 compared to 192 per 100,000 for whites.

Lisa Stolzenberg

Although it is readily acknowledged that Blacks are arrested for marijuana possession in numbers far out of proportion to their numbers in the general population, there’s disagreement about what this situation exactly means.

Some maintain that racial disparity in arrests for marijuana possession results from racially biased drug enforcement practices. Black citizens, according to this perspective, face a higher probability of arrest for marijuana possession because the police view them as having a greater proclivity than whites to use and sell drugs.

Such a negative stereotype is thought to compel police to monitor and arrest Blacks more frequently for marijuana possession than warranted based on their actual usage patterns.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) published a widely disseminated study advancing the position that the police are racially biased in their use of the arrest sanction for marijuana possession. Although surveys of the general population show that Black and white citizens report similar usage rates of marijuana, the ACLU reports that a Black person is 3.73 times more likely than a white person to be arrested for marijuana possession.

As the ACLU writes:

Despite the pronounced disparities in arrest rates of whites and Blacks for marijuana possession, rates of marijuana use and non-use between whites and Blacks are roughly equal. Therefore, the wide racial disparities in marijuana possession arrest rates cannot be explained by differences in marijuana usage rates between whites and Blacks.

However, a major problem with the ACLU’s analysis is that the self-report data pertaining to an individual’s marijuana use and, for that matter, other illegal behaviors are likely subject to response bias because of a respondent’s hesitancy in reporting socially unacceptable behaviors.

The underreporting of marijuana use by survey respondents is not a serious problem if whites and Blacks underreport their marijuana use at the same rate. However, given that disparaging labels related to drug use that are often used to depict Blacks in our society, the negative stereotype of Black citizens having an enhanced propensity to use illegal drugs might compel them more than whites to give socially acceptable answers in surveys.

This situation would then increase the underreporting of marijuana use by Black citizens in self-report surveys.

The NIJ’s ADAM Program

Although it is difficult to determine whether respondents in surveys are giving truthful answers regarding their illegal drug use, it is possible to make such a determination by analyzing data collected from the National Institute of Justice’s (NIJ) Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring (ADAM) Program.

We previously acted as the Site Director and Site Coordinator for Miami-Dade County’s ADAM Program. The program was significantly downsized in 2003 due to funding issues.

The ADAM Program sampled arrestees brought into booking facilities (jails) in several heavily populated counties across the U.S. These arrestees were interviewed about their drug use and were asked to provide urine specimens. Respondents were assured of anonymity. The interview was usually administered in about 20 minutes.

The instrument consisted of items that measured drug use history, patterns of use, and demographic information such as the arrestee’s race/ethnicity. Immediately following the interview, urine specimens were collected and tests for drug screening were conducted off-site. These drug screening tests can generally detect the use of marijuana within the 30 days before the individual’s arrest.


Stewart D’Alessio

Using data drawn from the ADAM II Program for 2010, we examined the extent of potential underreporting of marijuana use in self-report surveys. In 2010, ADAM data collection occurred in the following ten counties: Atlanta, GA, Charlotte, NC, Chicago, IL, Denver, CO, Indianapolis, IN, Minneapolis, MN, New York, NY, Portland, OR, Sacramento, CA, and Washington, DC.

If the ACLU’s claim that marijuana use is similar for Blacks and whites is accurate, then there should be little difference in the urine test results for marijuana use among Black and white arrestees.

Moreover, because white and Black arrestees are queried about their drug use immediately before being drug tested, a statistical comparison can be made between Black and white arrestees regarding whether one racial group is more likely than the other group to underreport their marijuana use.

Table 1 (see below) reports the results for self-reported marijuana use and the urine tests for marijuana use among male arrestees. A distinction is made between all arrestees and arrestees for non-drug offenses because of the overrepresentation of Black citizens arrested for drugs.

Although national surveys such as the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse show similar rates of marijuana use among Blacks and whites in the general population, the results depicted in Table 1 clearly show that marijuana use is much higher among Black arrestees.

The likelihood of testing positive for marijuana use is 9.5 percent higher for Black arrestees generally and 9.2 percent higher for Black non-drug arrestees than for white arrestees. These racial differences are unlikely to have occurred by chance alone.

A visual inspection of Table 1 also shows a racial difference in the underreporting of marijuana use. Although both white and Black arrestees underreport their marijuana use, Black arrestees are 6.7 percent more likely than white arrestees to underreport their use of marijuana. A substantive racial difference in the underreporting of marijuana use is also observed for non-drug arrestees (6.9 percent).

Our results are buttressed by previous research using the ADAM data that found that Black arrestees are much more inclined than whites to underreport their drug use as determined by a urine test.

Table 1. Marijuana use among white and Black male arrestees

Source: ADAM II 2010 Annual Report

The results presented in Table 1 cast some doubt on the ACLU’s assertion that the racial disparity in marijuana possession arrests results from discriminatory law enforcement practices.

Self-report surveys often show that Blacks and whites use marijuana at similar rates. However, based on the urine tests of arrestees booked into jails, we find that Black arrestees are substantially more likely than white arrestees to use marijuana. The data also reveal that Black arrestees are more apt than whites to underreport their marijuana use.

In sum, when one considers the findings generated from the ADAM data, it appears that the observed racial disparity in marijuana arrests is explained to some degree by the greater use of marijuana among Black citizens.

Stewart J. D’Alessio and Lisa Stolzenberg, Ph.D., are professors of criminology and criminal justice at Florida International University. They welcome readers’ comments.

6 thoughts on “Are Police Racially Biased in Marijuana Arrests?

  1. Sorry, but this story is idiotic. Data from this source suggests that blacks are about 10% more likely than whites to under-report marijuana use, but nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana use. Clearly under-reporting explains only a trivial portion of the grave disparities in marijuana arrests. This story does everything it can to obscure this pivotal fact.

    • The arrest rates omit the fact that blacks are more likely to be multiple offenders so it’s inaccurate to say they’re arrested more often for marijuana

  2. So, do a survey in Colorado where after 8 years of legalized MJ, there is no real incentive to report falsely. And i agree with Mendel that given the 4:1 ratio and my 18 years of police experience watching guys nearly always stop black and brown people, in order to conduct a search of drugs —under reporting accounts for only a potential slice of the issue.

  3. The prior two comments make good points, and I think it also is questionable whether results from arrestees can be generalized to black citizens. Maybe among blacks who get arrested there is more distrust of the system and marijuana is more likely to be the drug of choice. Whites who get arrested may be less distrustful of the system and be relatively more likely to drink heavily or use other drugs. I do not think it is fair to assume that just because black arrestees are more likely to use marijuana it is fair to assume use is higher among blacks in the general population.

  4. Why can’t I find that chart in the ADAM II report you cited as the source? Also, you cited the 2010 report but linked to the 2009 report.

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