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Cohen: ACLU Report on Racial Disparities in Marijuana Arrests Proof Positive Reform is Needed

Press Release

Location: Washington, DC

Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-09) today said a new report conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on racial disparities in marijuana arrests across the country is proof positive current policies toward marijuana must be reformed.

"The ACLU findings are alarming and must be addressed," said Congressman Cohen, who recently authored legislation to create a National Commission on Federal Marijuana Policy. "Regardless of your views on marijuana, it's important that we understand the impact of current federal marijuana policy and address racial disparities in marijuana arrests. We must also examine the conflict with those state laws that allow for medicinal or personal use of marijuana. A national commission would provide us with the information we need to create sensible policy going forward."

According the ACLU report, Black Americans were nearly four times as likely as whites to be arrested on charges of marijuana possession and this disparity has grown steadily in the past decade. Drawn from police records from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, the report is the most comprehensive review of marijuana arrests by race and by county. Much of the data was independently reviewed for The New York Times -- which recently wrote about this -- by researchers at Stanford University. The ACLU report said that one possible reason that the racial disparity in arrests remained despite shifting state policies toward the drug is that police practices are slow to change.

African-Americans in Tennessee are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people despite relatively similar rates of use, according to the nationwide study. The racial disparity in Tennessee's marijuana arrests was slightly higher than the national figure, which showed black people in America are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for having pot than white people. In Shelby County, 83.2 percent of people arrested for marijuana possession were black, which the report cited as one of the highest county-level statistics in the nation. Tennessee ranked 15th in the number of total arrests for pot possession, with 18,031 people taken into custody for the offense in 2010. The state came in 18th in a ranking of the severity of its disparate racial figures, with 191 white people arrested for every 771 black people.

Congressman Cohen's "National Commission on Federal Marijuana Policy Act" would examine racial disparities in arrest rates and current federal marijuana policy. In 1971, Congress created the "National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse" led by former Pennsylvania Governor Raymond P. Shafer. The Shafer Commission undertook a comprehensive review of the nature and scope of marijuana use, its effects, the relationship of marijuana use to other behavior, and the efficacy of existing law. Its final report, released in 1973, called for the decriminalization of marijuana.

In the four decades since the Shafer Commission, however, the federal government has only expanded its War on Drugs and continued to prohibit the use of marijuana. Public attitudes and scientific understandings of marijuana have changed significantly and it's time to reevaluate federal policy, particularly in light of the growing movement toward state legalization.

Under Congressman Cohen's legislation, the National Commission on Federal Marijuana Policy would study:

How federal laws should be reconciled with state marijuana laws;

The cost of marijuana prohibition and potential regulation of marijuana, as well as the potential revenue generated by taxation of marijuana;

The impact of federal banking and tax laws on businesses operating in compliance with state marijuana laws;

The health impacts, both benefits and risks, related to marijuana use, and in comparison to alcohol and tobacco use;

The domestic and international public safety effects of marijuana prohibition and potential regulation of marijuana;

The impact of marijuana prohibition on criminal justice, including any racial disparities, and the collateral consequences of prosecution for marijuana possession, including lack of access to housing, education, and employment;

The appropriate placement of marijuana in the schedule of the Controlled Substances Act; and

The effects of marijuana prohibition or future regulation and control of marijuana on international relationships and treaty obligations.

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