Although I don’t support fully legalizing marijuana, I did vote in favor of Metro’s new ordinance that allows police officers to issue a civil citation instead of a misdemeanor warrant for possession of small amounts of marijuana. I voted in favor mostly due to race issues. Despite research showing that the rate of marijuana use in America does not vary by race, substantially more African Americans are punished criminally than whites. That’s not a criticism of any individual police officer, police chief, prosecutor, judge, or jury. But it’s true, and it’s a problem.
Allowing Metro police officers the discretion to give a civil citation if they choose is an imperfect solution. It would be better if we could wake up one day to find that the rate of arrests and convictions among race groups were equal, just like the underlying drug use. Short of that though, we should experiment with changes in our enforcement laws, and then track the results. That is why I am co-sponsoring a resolution that would ask the Metro Nashville Police Department, the District Attorney, and the Circuit Court Clerk to work together to track statistics showing the rates of civil and criminal citations, by race and gender.
The fact that drug laws are enforced more heavily against minority groups is a part of continued racial injustice. Some of the initial reaction to the resolution shows how uncomfortable it still is to talk publicly about race. For example, some have disputed my “hypothesis” that drug laws are enforced unfairly along race group lines in America. And, one letter to the editor in the Tennessean suggested that disproportionate arrests were because “the person on the street…just cannot behave properly.”
These responses miss the point. The statistics about the uneven impact of drug enforcement cannot be disputed. African-Americans get punished criminally for drug offenses at dramatically higher rates than whites. That is the problem. We can and should debate the roles of education, poverty, family, jobs, and wages. But, being smart enough or well-behaved enough does not explain the statistics. No – race is the core issue just as it has been for so long.
These statistics are a call to action. It is important that Nashville talk about race openly. We have to be able to talk about the truth that African-Americans are arrested and convicted disproportionately for drug offenses. Inevitably, a few will finger point or get defensive about this. I believe more of us will rise above that and focus on solutions, on moving toward the goal of equal justice under the law for all of us.