Marijuana in Black and White
At the end of last year, Jake Armstrong, a reporter for the Pasadena Weekly, called the city's police chief to ask him if he knew that blacks, who represented only 14 percent of Pasadena's population, accounted for more than half of the city's marijuana arrests. It was a question that could be posed to just about every police chief in California.
Armstrong's story came out 8 months before the Drug Policy Alliance released a report titled 'Targeting Blacks for Marijuana,' which showed that in California's 25 largest counties police arrest blacks for marijuana possession at twice, three times, and even four times the rate of whites. With the aim of sparking media interest, the authors timed publication to coincide with an announcement from the California NAACP that the 101 year-old organization backed a ballot measure legalizing marijuana in the state.
The NAACP angle put the story in the news for a day or two in the middle of July. But it was an election story. Would black voters help Proposition 19 pass? The news that cops in San Francisco arrest blacks for pot possession at a 448 percent higher rate than whites was cited as a reason for the NAACP's decision, if it was mentioned at all. That narrow spin didn't surprise Jake Armstrong. 'Unless the community presses it, it doesn't seem like it's going to be much of an issue,' he said.
It also doesn't surprise Kevin Weston, the director for new media at New America Media. 'The raw statistics reinforce stereotypes on both sides,' said Weston. The disparity in marijuana arrests in California's 25 largest counties conforms to the perception of middle and upper class non-blacks that blacks commit more crime. And to blacks living, working, and going to school in poor neighborhoods, unfair treatment at the hands of law enforcement hardly qualifies as a news flash. Here's the media koan of the day: Is a scandal still a scandal if nobody cares?
Of course, the answer must be yes. Weston says that there are ways to make people connect to stories that they might otherwise be inclined to ignore. 'If we can really connect the dots, if we can really show visually what it looks like in the neighborhoods, we can get people interested,' said Weston.
Such coverage would also help the media report on the campaign to legalize marijuana in a way that is actually more compelling to the public, said Margaret Dooley Sammuli, Deputy State Director for the Drug Policy Alliance. 'When the topic comes to marijuana, there seems to be this singular focus in the media on the money, which is strange. The money angle is the least persuasive to voters, and it manages to avoid the real policy debate around marijuana: It's not that we are missing tax dollars, but we are flushing money down the drain on mass criminalization and selective enforcement,' said Dooley-Sammuli. She believes that localizing the issue in the way that the Pasadena Weekly did is one way to expand the conversation around marijuana policy.
But Michael Harris, deputy director of the Haywood Burns Institute, offers an even simpler formula: Just write it. 'I think the media is so cynical they don't even bother to pursue the stories,' he said. If people saw more stories showing that blacks actually use all drugs at a lower rate than whites, if people saw more stories detailing the pernicious consequences of misdemeanor drug convictions on the lives of young black men, then the news that seven percent of the state's population represent 20 percent of marijuana possession arrests would not just be news to police chiefs questioned by reporters.
The police chief in Pasadena didn't know that his officers were arresting blacks for marijuana possession at a much higher rate than whites. But Bernard Melekian didn't have much time to correct the disparity even if he wanted to. Shortly before Armstrong called him at the office, United States Attorney General Eric Holder tapped Melekian to lead the Department of Justice's community policing division.
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