Mandatory Minimums, Marijuana, and Measurement

I harp quite a bit on our comfortable Canadian myth that Canada doesn’t have a race problem. While I disagree with it in principle, in practice it is true provided you are grading on a curve. Canada doesn’t have nearly the same problem with racism that places like South Africa, South America, or even many places in Europe do. Canada’s history is one of comparative tolerance… aside from the initial displacement and subsequent repeated betrayals of its indigenous peoples… and the internment of Japanese citizens during the second world war… and the treatment of black settlers in the Maritimes… okay this is distracting me from my point.

Our many failures aside, Canada does not have the same history of deeply-entrenched racial animosity and open hatred that our neighbour to the south does. Well we do, but ours is less apparent/violent. Because of our non-identical histories in this regard, we have often compared ourselves favourably to Americans. The open question, one that may never be adequately answered, is the size of that difference. With large sociological and demographic differences between our countries, and due to the diffuse nature of the variable of interest (how do you quantify how racist someone is?), it’s a question that may be beyond our capacity to answer scientifically.

However, thanks to the short-sightedness of our federal government, we may have a shot at estimating a facet of it:

More per capita marijuana arrests are made in [Washington DC] than in any other jurisdiction in the country, according to a recent analysis of MPD and FBI data by Shenandoah University criminal justice professor Jon Gettman, the former director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Pot arrests have been rising steadily every year since at least 2003, mirroring a national trend that began in the 1990s. And they didn’t really work. “We doubled marijuana arrests and it had no effect on the number of users,” Gettman says.

But even with a high arrest rate, some people in D.C. can probably safely get high without worrying that the cops are coming. Those people are white people. In 2007, 91 percent of those arrested for marijuana were black. In a city whose population demographics are steadily evening out, that’s odd. In fact, adjusting for population, African Americans are eight times as likely to be arrested for weed as white smokers are.

If that graph doesn’t shock you, then you’re either completely heartless, or just as cynical as I am. While the rates of consumption of marijuana are roughly equal*, the arrest rate is tipped grotesquely in favour of arresting black people for marijuana possession. Now I can (and often do) speculate about the more indirect or obscure methods by which racism manifests itself, but this one is pretty clear cut: police officers are stopping and searching black people more often than they are white people. The idea of black pot smokers is more apparent in the minds of police than the contrasting idea of good, honest white folks being druggies. As a result, it becomes far more commonplace to look for drugs when stopping black District residents than white ones.

I was once invited to go to Washington, D.C. for a vacation. I politely declined, pointing out that statistics like this are why, despite my love of history and politics, Washington D.C. stands forever on my list of places that I will not visit unless I have to. Of course, most of the U.S. is like that for me, so perhaps that isn’t a big deal. Stephen Colbert once accurate described the city as “the chocolate city with a marshmallow center” – a tiny nucleus of white residents surrounded by a vast sea of unrepresented and underserved black residents. A place like that would render me incapable of functioning.

However, this does point the way to an interesting natural experiment. Now that the Republican North Party has announced its intention to pass a wildly unpopular and ineffective anti-crime bill that includes mandatory minimums for possession of marijuana, we can draw some comparisons. A few years back there was a great to-do about racial profiling in Toronto police. Many hands were wrung and pearls clutched over the fact that we, too, might be racist. With the introduction of mandatory minimums for possession, we can draw some direct comparisons between criminal justice in the United States and in Canada – are charges dropped less frequently against whites compared to blacks? Are black people stopped and searched more often, leading to a disproportionate level of sentencing? Do arrests break down by postal code?

Now it must be said that having this one statistic will not give us a measure of racism across the board. Obviously Canada has a very different rural/urban mix than the U.S. does, and segregated communities are something of a foreign concept to us, with perhaps the exception of certain suburbs. Our demographic makeup is also quite different in terms of ethnic groups, both in terms of size and in terms of sheer numbers. That being said, it will allow us to scrutinize the way we practice law enforcement, and point to areas that need our concerted attention. It is to our detriment to have one segment of our population disproportionately represented in the prison system, since it prolongs the effects of wealth and access/achievement disparities to make them into trans-generational problems.

While I don’t think it’s a good thing that we’re heading backwards in terms of crime, or that racial profiling is a tool used by law enforcement, this new bill may provide us a unique opportunity to measure the effects of both. Hopefully only for a little while, when the next government scraps the stupid legislation and spends our money on something useful. Like ponies.

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*I am sure that some pedant will whinge about the self-report nature of the scale. The absolute size of the pot-smoking population is irrelevant. You would have to provide some pretty overwhelming evidence to get me to believe that black people are 8 times as likely to lie about smoking weed than white people, which is what that nitpick implies.


  1. says

    Unless I really missed something, I’m pretty sure the mandatory minimums are just for those caught growing 6 or more plants, not harmless possession of a couple joints.

  2. says

    From the bill:

    – Additional penalties to combat serious and organized drug crimes, particularly when they involve youth, including increasing the maximum penalty for possession and production of drugs such as marijuana from seven to 14 years, factoring in security, health and safety concerns arising from marijuana grow-ops.

    – Changes to the parole system to give victims a greater role and “increase offender accountability” with new sanctions and powers for police when release conditions are broken

    – A higher cost and more strict eligibility criteria for applying for a criminal pardon, and an elimination of pardons for some serious or repeat offences.

    While these are not strictly ‘mandatory minimums’, they do reflect a more Americanized approach to criminal prosecution.

  3. says

    Agreed, but it’s not clear to me that they’re going after users anymore, but rather producers (including casual ones). So I don’t think we’re going to get the same data as your DC example.

  4. says

    Maybe not. The article just got me thinking about ways in which we could make meaningful attempts to measure different racial climates in an objective way rather than just through narrative.

  5. etcetera says

    Living out here in Alberta, racism is directed primarily toward First Nations. Sure, we have our small enclave of Somalis and Algerians who are always mentioned whenever there’s another murder in Edmonton, even though they only account for about 10% of them, but most prisoners in our Remand Centre (so bad that some prisoners used to receive triple credit for time served there)are First Nations.

  6. Crommunist says

    That’s the other confounding factor that makes cross-border comparisons really tricky – First Nations people are the most marginalized group, far more than black people. I’d imagine it would only be in the major cities – Ottawa, Toronto, Calgary, Halifax – where we could make clean comparisons along the same racial lines.

  7. davesmith says

    Crommunist, I’m new to your blog since you joined FTB. I’ve been enjoying.

    I wanted to respond, as a resident of DC. I’m not arguing that DC doesn’t have a race problem, but I think your graphic has a different explanation.

    I don’t know what the true ratio is, but there are far more blacks than whites living in DC. Historically, the ratio has been close to 10:1.

    For the sake of argument, let’s say the city has 500,000 people. About 350,000 of them are black, and 35,000 are white, and the rest are hispanic or some other ethnicity. So the statistics on use (left hand of your graph) would say that there are about 35,000 black pot smokers and about 3,500 white pot smokers.

    So it really matters whether the graph on the right is the number of the rests per year (“rates” is difficult to interpret) or something like an individual pot smoker’s relative risk of being arrested conditioned on being “black” or “white.” If the rhs is reporting on the former, then the right hand side is not shocking.

  8. davesmith says

    I take it all back. According to Wikidpedia, DC’s current population is 50% black and 40% white. Assuming that’s close to correct, your graphic is shocking.

  9. thaismcrc says

    I’m Brazilian and we have often had to deal with the same argument that we are not a racist country because we never had Jim Crow style laws, or any kind of official segregation, nor “the same history of deeply-entrenched racial animosity and open hatred” as the US. But, or course, slavery was only outlawed in Brazil in 1888 and there were (and still are) plenty of economic and social barriers to make sure that only white Brazilians had access to higher education, health care, employment, etc etc. But those things are harder to see, and coupled with the fact that Brazilians don’t self-identify in terms of a black/white binary, but tend to think more in terms of a gradient, plenty of otherwise progressive people think that things like affirmative action for racial minorities will “racialize” a country that really only has a wealth distribution problem.
    I also find it interesting that Canada “gets away” with a lot because everyone else is so much worse. I have a friend in Vancouver who works in public health and she gets frustrated with how people at times dismiss some very serious problems (like the way aboriginal peoples are treated) because it’s not as bad as the US, or not as bad as Brazil.
    (Sorry for the long-winded and not entirely related comment)

  10. Crommunist says

    It’s a great comment. One of the first things I ever blogged about was the danger of downward comparisons. Mind you, I was talking about Jersey Shore, but the point still stands. Being better than the worst shouldn’t be a point of pride.

    I am deeply interested in race dynamics in places like Brazil, Afghanistan, Cambodia, and other places that have experienced or are characterized by major de-silo-ization along race lines.

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