Dallas' Black Population Faces Much Higher Odds of Arrest for Marijuana than Whites

Dallas rejected cite-and-release, which would allow police to issue citations for marijuana possession instead of taking offenders to jail.
Dallas rejected cite-and-release, which would allow police to issue citations for marijuana possession instead of taking offenders to jail.
Matthew Benoit/Shutterstock

Marijuana wasn't always illegal in the United States. In colonial times, hemp was used as legal tender in colonial Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland. In the 1800s, cannabis was ubiquitous as an ingredient in tinctures and pharmaceuticals. Its highly concentrated extract, hashish, enjoyed a burst of popularity in mid-century, captured in an 1869 Vanity Fair advertisement for "hasheesh candy," which was described as a "pleasurable and harmless stimulant" under whose influence "all classes seem to gather new inspiration and energy."

Then, in the wake of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, Mexican immigrants began to pour into the United States, bringing with them a custom of smoking marijuana for pleasure. Rather abruptly, Americans decided that marijuana was bad and set about making it illegal. Between 1914 and 1925, 26 states banned marijuana and more continued to do so as William Randolph Hearst's newspapers led a puritanical drumbeat linking the substance, "called murder smoke here in police circles," with all manner of iniquity.

Public sentiment about marijuana softened somewhat in the 1960s (see: hippies) and then hardened again during the Reagan/Bush war on drugs. But unlike alcohol, which was banned for 13 years, possessing marijuana has remained a jail-worthy offense basically everywhere in the country, never mind that pot is orders of magnitude less dangerous than booze. Its original association with poor people with dark skin has proved a hard thing to shake, even in modern Dallas, where police arrest black and Latino people for possession of marijuana at rates far higher than their share of the population would indicate. And those arrests happen predominately in poorer sections of the city, according to police data.

Lately, public sentiment nationally has begun to soften again. About half of states now permit medical marijuana, and a handful — Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska — have legalized its recreational use.

Texas has been slower to embrace the movement. Aside from the Texas Legislature's 2015 legalization of medicinal cannabidiol (CBD) oil, which doesn't contain enough THC to get users high, the state's most significant step toward decriminalization was a 2007 bill that allowed cities and counties the option to have police write a ticket for low-level marijuana possession rather than haul them to jail. The criminal charges and the range of potential punishments would stay the same, but the policy would save officers time and reduce jail costs.

Dallas has toyed with such a cite-and-release policy on and off for several years. Earlier this year, the City Council appeared like it might finally move forward with the policy, which would allow officers to write tickets for possession of small amounts of marijuana rather than haul users to jail, but ultimately killed it. Councilwoman Sandy Greyson didn't think it fair that people caught with marijuana in the slivers of Dallas she represents that protrude into Denton and Collin counties, where officials did not buy into the city's proposal, would still be arrested while pot-smokers in the rest of the city would be sent on their way. Councilman Rickey Callahan, meanwhile, memorably fretted that pot decriminalization would lead to "anarchy."

But for all the talk of fairness and morality, the cite-and-release debate never yielded an answer to one of the weightier criminal-justice questions, which is who gets arrested for marijuana possession in Dallas and, given the city's stark division by class and race, where those arrests take place?

It's worth pausing here to run down a few facts. Marijuana gets people high because its active ingredient, THC, binds to receptors located in the brain and throughout the body like a key sliding into its lock. Human beings are equally predisposed to enjoy weed, regardless of their skin color or how much money is in their bank accounts. In practice, race isn't much of a predictor of substance abuse either. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, blacks, whites, and Hispanics use illicit drugs at relatively equal rates (10.5 percent, 9.5 percent, and 8.8 percent, respectively).

All of which is a way of saying that one would expect that arrests for marijuana possession would mirror, more-or-less, the overall composition of the population.

But that's not at all what Dallas' marijuana arrests look like. Councilman Philip Kingston recently obtained a spreadsheet from Dallas police detailing all marijuana arrests between January 1 and mid-May, about 1,300 cases total. (The Observer's request for similar information took a good eight months to be processed by DPD.)

Kingston takes the opposite position from Callahan. He believes it's unduly harsh drug laws, which saddle poor blacks with criminal records and relegate them permanently to a kind of underclass, that are "destroying the social fabric," not people smoking pot. He expected that the spreadsheet of marijuana arrests would support his thesis.

Indeed, the data shows that blacks are arrested for marijuana possession at a rate far disproportionate to their percentage of the population. By contrast, Hispanics, and especially whites, are considerably less likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than their population would suggest:

The geography of the arrests is equally striking. A heatmap shows that arrests are concentrated in nodes clustered in various parts of the city. Note the lack of color in the affluent enclaves of Preston Hollow, Far North Dallas, and Lakewood.

Dallas' Black Population Faces Much Higher Odds of Arrest for Marijuana than Whites
Eric Nicholson

The highest intensities, by contrast, generally correspond to heavily minority areas. South Dallas/Fair Park has a red blotch. So does Vickery Meadow and the sea of apartments at Forest and Audelia roads.

This certainly has something to do with poverty. The marijuana-arrest heat map is almost a perfect inverse of a census map showing the disparity in median income, with the darkest blue corresponding to the highest incomes:

Dallas' Black Population Faces Much Higher Odds of Arrest for Marijuana than Whites
Eric Nicholson

And there is at least some evidence that, unlike race, factors associated with poverty do correlate with increased drug usage. High-school dropouts, for example, are nearly twice as likely to use illicit drugs as college graduates, according to the national drug-use survey, and the unemployed are more than twice as likely to use drugs as those with jobs.

But that doesn't go all the way toward explaining the racial disparities. Besides, race and class are so thoroughly intertwined that trying to puzzle out which one is the bigger factor is rather pointless. In either case, you have the criminal justice system hammering down on a marginalized population for an indulgence for which wealthier, whiter people get a free pass.

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