Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Pot cases in the Historic Triangle mirrors state: Blacks may be the minority, but they get arrested more

(WYDaily/Courtesy Pixabay)
(WYDaily/Courtesy Pixabay)

Legalizing marijuana has been a topic in Virginia for a while, but in the meantime residents are still getting arrested for the drug and statistics show there is a racial discrepancy.

African Americans only make up roughly 20 percent of the population in Virginia yet they are arrested on average three times more frequently than white residents for marijuana possession, said Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director with Virginia National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

In the Historic Triangle, the data shows something similar.

According to data from the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office, for the 2018-2019 year, 39 percent of York County’s arrests for marijuana possession or possession with intent to distribute were African Americans. However, African Americans represent only 13.8 percent of the local population, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Data from the Williamsburg Police Department showed that 51 percent of marijuana arrests for possession in 2018 in the city were African Americans despite census data that shows African Americans make up only 14 percent of the population.

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The same is true for James City County where 54 percent of marijuana possession arrests in 2018 were African Americans, according to data from the James City County Police Department. However, African Americans only make up approximately 13 percent of the population.

“A lot of it in my opinion has to do with where police concentrate patrols and prioritize police activity, like road stops,” said Jon Gettman, a criminal justice professor at Shenandoah University.

Gettman is one of the researchers who prepared the study “Racial Disparities in Marijuana Arrests” for the Drug Policy Alliance. It analyzed data from 2003 to 2013 and showed blacks are being disproportionately impacted by marijuana law enforcement.

He refers to those as crimes of indiscretion, saying the people are in the wrong place at the wrong time depending on where police are more heavily concentrated.

“I think there are more police activity in places where there are African Americans,” he said. “Not because they commit more crime, but because it has to do with population.”

In his research, he said he’s noticed most of the marijuana arrests occur in parking lots or during traffic stops.

Gettman said that’s an important factor especially for tourist towns. While looking at arrest rates compared to population is how data is configured, there can also be a lot of individuals coming from outside the local area as well.

“I think some of the general conclusions are that individuals who are arrested may be in areas more heavily policed so they may also be subject to implicit bias,” Pedini said. “But not necessarily because data doesn’t tell us why.”

Pedini said one of the best ways to improve the issue is to start decriminalizing the drug. Worth noting is that the 2020 Virginia Legislative session immediately prioritized the decriminalization for the possession of marijuana.

The study pointed out while decriminalization is not necessarily a solution, it will reduce the number of arrests which impact minority populations.

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“I think you always see a disparate rate [in arrests] but looking at the greater reduction in arrests is how you lessen the impact,” they said. “States see the greatest reduction in arrests post legislation.”

But those trends are constantly shifting as the discussion plays out on a national platform, Gettman said.

“The changes that have taken place nationally are playing out in different trends in different states,” he said. “It’s a very inconsistent time right now.”

Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doironhttp://wydaily.com
Alexa Doiron is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She graduated from Roanoke College and is currently working on a master’s degree in English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alexa was born and raised in Williamsburg and enjoys writing stories about local flair. She began her career in journalism at the Warhill High School newspaper and, eight years later, still loves it. After working as a news editor in Blacksburg, Va., Alexa missed Williamsburg and decided to come back home. In her free time, she enjoys reading Jane Austen and playing with her puppy, Poe. Alexa can be reached at alexa@localvoicemedia.com.

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