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Originally published June 4, 2013 at 8:45 PM | Page modified June 4, 2013 at 9:57 PM

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When pot and race collide

Before pot was legal, you were three to four times more likely to be arrested for having it if you’re black. We ended that embarrassment by legalizing pot, but that only skirted the real problem.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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I voted last fall to legalize marijuana. It was a reluctant yes, though, because I’ve been to the Netherlands and seen firsthand how legal pot comes with its own raft of problems.

In fact the Netherlands now appears headed in the opposite direction, toward stronger regulation of pot.

But never was I more pleased with my vote than Monday, when the first-ever report on pot-possession arrests for all 50 states came out.

There has been no stupider, more pointless plank in the War on Drugs than arresting people for simple pot possession. Not for dealing drugs. Just having some pot was enough to make you a criminal.

And guess what? Not only were arrests for pot soaring, peaking in 2007. But around here we’ve been hauling in blacks at nearly three times the rate of whites. Even though blacks and whites tend to smoke pot at the same rates.

The report by the American Civil Liberties Union, using data from the federal government, is the largest review of pot arrests by county and race ever done. It shows what a waste it all was. And also how inequitably the law was applied.

The worst place in our state, if you’re black, was Pierce County. Blacks there were 4.2 times more likely to get popped for pot possession than whites.

King County had lower arrest rates than Pierce County, but blacks in King County still were arrested at more than twice the rate as whites.

Almost anywhere in America, the pot arrest rate for blacks is two to eight times what it is for whites. This is not a drug like crack that’s used more by African Americans. It also isn’t a big-city thing. Even in Franklin County in Eastern Washington’s wheat belt, blacks were arrested for pot at 2.8 times higher rates than whites.

“Such racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests exist in all regions of the country, in counties large and small, urban and rural, wealthy and poor, and with large and small black populations,” the report notes.

Are we just incorrigibly racist?

UW professor Katherine Beckett, who wasn’t involved in this study but found in 2008 that blacks in Seattle are 13 times more likely than whites to be arrested for dealing drugs, said no, it isn’t all necessarily due to racist intent.

For example: Police tend to focus on neighborhoods with high levels of street crime, which typically are poorer and have more minorities. That often leads to over-enforcement of chippy crimes like pot possession.

“If you stop a lot of people in this state, in any part of the state, you will find a lot of marijuana,” she said. “People of color tend to get stopped more.”

Probably none of this comes as a shocker. And by legalizing pot, we have ended this long-running racial embarrassment. With respect to this one substance, anyway, for people 21 years and older.

But last week when I wrote how we’re a tale of two cities on crime — the usually insulated city of privilege and the second city of gangs and street crime — many readers objected. Saying if there’s a problem, it’s solely of the second city’s making.

“If you live in the city of drugs, thugs and drive-by shootings, it is because you want to. It just isn’t that hard to escape,” one reader summed up.

The choices we make matter, that’s true.

But the deck also is stacked. The numbers prove it.

How it got that way is more complex than simple racism. But it’s so stacked it doubtless does more to fuel the second city than temper it.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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