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Black & white issue

Gov. Mike Pence’s stance against leniency for even low-level drug offenders stunted Indiana lawmakers’ debate over pot penalties in the most recent legislative session. But a report detailing the disturbing racial disparity in marijuana arrest rates should prompt Hoosier leaders to revisit the issue.

The report this month from the American Civil Liberties Union, “The War on Marijuana in Black and White,” found that blacks are disproportionately arrested for pot possession throughout the nation, including in Indiana.

Studies show blacks and whites use marijuana at similar rates, but blacks are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for pot possession nationwide.

The study was based on 10 years of data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program. It found blacks were 3.4 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession in Indiana, which is slightly lower than the average rate of disparity nationwide. But 30 of Indiana’s counties, including Allen, far exceeded the national average for disparity. In Allen County, blacks are 6.4 times more likely to be arrested for pot possession than whites.

Elkhart County had the worst rate of disparity with the likelihood of blacks living in that county being arrested seven times that of white residents.

“Such racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests exist in all regions of the country, in counties large and small, urban and rural, wealthy and poor, and with large and small Black populations,” the report said. “Indeed, in over 96 percent of counties with more than 30,000 people in which at least 2 percent of the residents are black, blacks are arrested at higher rates than whites for marijuana possession.”

If the moral injustice of the racial disparity is not enough to push lawmakers to act, the financial effects of the discrimination should. In 2010, Indiana spent more than $38 million enforcing marijuana-possession laws.

The ACLU report recommends legalizing and then regulating and taxing marijuana in a fashion similar to alcohol. At the least, the report suggests, states such as Indiana should consider reforms to the criminal justice system that reduce penalties for pot possession and discourage racial profiling.

The civil liberties organization suggests police agencies should be careful about including marijuana arrests as part of performance or productivity measurements, as it could encourage racial profiling. Furthermore, state governments should consider eliminating any financial incentives, such as awarding grants, based on making a large number of arrests that include arrests for low-level possession offenses.

Neither a majority of state lawmakers nor residents appears interested in legalization at this point. But other reforms are possible. State lawmakers will have an opportunity to revisit the issue as part of a summer study committee.

The staggering racial disparity disclosed by the study demonstrates why lawmakers need to renew their efforts to ensure marijuana possession penalties fit the crime regardless of skin color.