Black Minnesotans way more likely to get arrested for marijuana than whites, report says

Outside the Hennepin County Government Center, Nicole Simms highlights the findings of a report she authored for Minnesota 2020

Outside the Hennepin County Government Center, Nicole Simms highlights the findings of a report she authored for Minnesota 2020

A new report published by Minnesota 2020 reiterates what cannabis activists have been saying for years, in some cases decades -- that marijuana reform is not merely a matter of medical necessity but of civil rights.

Relying on FBI statistics from 2011, the progressive think tank found that black Minnesotans are 6.4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites. That figure is twice the national average and mostly represents men under the age of 25.

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Blacks in Minnesota 8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites

"That kind of over-representation cannot be accounted for without racial bias," says Steve Fletcher, executive director of the Minnesota 2020, at a news conference Monday. "Black Minnesotans bear a disproportionate share of the personal and collateral costs of our war on drugs."

The ACLU came to a similar conclusion last year, but what sets this report apart is it attempt to quantify direct and indirect costs. These would include the obvious (fines, court fees) as well as the not-so-obvious (access to federal student loans, loss of wages, possible deportation).

The Minnesota 2020 report concludes that, in the most extreme scenario, a Minneapolis resident on public assistance who's convicted of felony possession (more than one and a half ounces) and deemed ineligible for drug court could lose $76,371 over a decade. This number takes into consideration possible jail time, depleted job prospects, and a five-year eviction from public housing.

The report puts the blame largely on police practices that target poorer neighborhoods with historically higher crime rates. Though marijuana use is about equal across races, whites are statistically less likely to be stopped and searched. The highest disparity now exists in Ramsey County, where blacks are 8.8 times more likely to get charged with felony marijuana possession.

Randy Gustafson, spokesman for the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office, says his department is in the process of installing a new computer system that would share arrest data across the nine municipal agencies within its boundaries. That way, patterns of arrest can be analyzed in-house.

Otherwise, Gustafson looked over the 37-page report for us and seized on one passage suggesting that cultural differences might be a factor (though a minor one) in racially skewed arrests. According to a 2006 Johns Hopkins study, blacks are more likely to buy marijuana outdoors, from strangers, and away from their homes.

"If you're going to draw attention to yourself, you're more likely to encounter law enforcement," Gustafson says.

The Minnesota 2020 report also sets its sight on the federal government's hundred-million dollar grant program that is awarded to task forces based on arrest numbers rather than convictions. What's more, it suggests tweaking our civil asset forfeiture laws.

In Minnesota, police can take ownership of property that was used to transport a criminal amount of marijuana with or without a criminal conviction. The poorer you are, the less likely you'll fight to get that property back in court. Reformers suspect that the true source of law enforcement's opposition to marijuana lies in this sad yet lucrative reality.

The solution? Teresa Nelson, legal director for the ACLU Minnesota, advocated at the press conference for full legalization of marijuana. But of course that's unlikely to happen for a long time. So as an alternative, she says, "we support full depenalization, which means mere possession will not be a citable offense and cannot be used as probable cause to stop and search someone."

Expect similar points to be made Wednesday at a state capitol rally being held by Minnesota NORML, which paid for the Minnesota 2020 report. Read the whole thing below.

-- Follow Jesse Marx on Twitter @marxjesse or send tips to [email protected]

Collateral Costs - MN 2020