Black and Latino Philadelphians account for 90 percent of marijuana possession arrests in Philadelphia, according to a new analysis of police department data.
This is despite the fact that those groups use the drug at similar rates as white residents.
Civil rights attorney Paul Messing began digging into the numbers after visiting the city’s diversionary program allowing defendants possessing small amounts of marijuana to have charges dismissed and records expunged if they meet the requirements.
“When I walked in, I saw what was essentially a sea of African-American faces,” Messing said.
And that visual has been underpinned by the facts of marijuana possession arrests in the city for years.
Messing asked the Philadelphia Police Department to provide police reports for every marijuana possession arrest for a two-month period since 2011. Each year, he said, black and Latino defendants represented the vast bulk of arrests.
“In the predominantly African-American districts, virtually everybody who is arrested for possession of marijuana is African-American,” Messing said. “In many of the predominantly white districts, a majority of the people arrested for possession of marijuana are African-American.
“So the question is, why is it that so many more black and Latino people arrested under these circumstances than whites?”
Theories abound, he said.
Perhaps white users are more discreet. Or police are over-patrolling black and Latino communities. Another explanation is that most drug sales police observe involve black and Latino residents. There’s no perfect theory for the persisting disparity, Messing said.
Though the stark racial disparities are clear, overall arrests for pot are down dramatically after Philadelphia decriminalized possession of small amounts nearly two years ago.
Last spring, for instance, there were about 200 marijuana possession arrests, an 80 percent decline from the previous year.
Those offenders now are fined, rather than criminally charged.
Monitoring of marijuana possession arrests is a component of the settlement reached between civil rights attorneys and the city of Philadelphia over reforming how pedestrian stop-and-frisks are conducted to ensure that legal guidelines are followed. Another major contention critics of the stop-and-frisk policy have cited is how they target minorities, mirroring the marijuana possession arrest issue.
A court-appointed independent monitor and a group of civil rights attorneys are assisting city leaders in correcting the imbalance.
“The city really wants to make the racial disparity disappear,” Messing said. “Good news to report that the number of arrests are way down, but we’re hoping the racial disparity will also diminish over time.”