A black person in Iowa is more than 8 times as likely to be arrested for possession than a white, an ACLU national study finds.

Iowa has the largest racial disparity in the country of arrests in marijuana possession, with blacks being more than eight times as likely to be arrested than whites, even though whites use marijuana at about the same rate, a national American Civil Liberties Union study has found.

The report is based on data collected from the FBI and U.S. Census Bureau. It found that on average nationally in 2010, a black person was 3.7 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana as a white person.  And in some individual counties nationally, blacks were more than 10, 15, and even 20 times as likely to be arrested.

Iowa has the highest racial disparity rate in the country with a black person being 8.34 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as a white person. Iowa is followed by Washington D.C., Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania.

In Iowa, blacks make up just 3.1 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But in 2010, they were arrested at a rate 8.34 times higher than whites for marijuana possession. That translates into 1,454 blacks arrested per 100,000 of the black general population compared to just 174 whites arrested per 100,000 of the white general population.

Iowa Must Do Better

"These are devastating numbers," said Randall Wilson, legal director for the ACLU of Iowa. Iowa criminal justice advocates have long pointed out racial disparities in arrest and incarceration rates of blacks and the report is further evidence that the state needs to make equity in criminal justice a priority.

"Iowa has been a leading state among civil rights and should not rank as the worst in racial disparities in marijuana arrests," said Wilson. "We all need to take responsibility—whether as citizens, police on the streets, or administrators. We can all do something to change this culture if we truly care about justice and equal opportunity."

The report also includes recommendations on ending "the war on marijuana." Marijuana arrests now account for half of all drug arrests in the U.S.  The report recommends legalization of marijuana as the smartest and surest way to end racially biased enforcement of marijuana laws.

Other Studies, Similar Problems

Iowa has fared badly in other studies of racial disparity in its criminal justice system.

In 2007, a study by the Washington D.C.-based Sentencing Project ranked Iowa worst in the nation in the ratio of blacks to whites in prison. The study found Iowa incarcerates blacks at a rate 13.6 times that of whites—more than double the national average. Across the country, blacks are imprisoned at nearly 6 times the rate for whites. Latinos are imprisoned at nearly double the rate for whites nationally.

(Latino arrest rates were not included in the ACLU study because the FBI data did not include that racial breakdown.)

A 1999 Des Moines Register investigation found the proportion of Iowa’s blacks in prison, on parole, or probation had reached 1 in 12—a ratio that far surpassed those of most other states.

The ACLU study is especially significant because it examines an area of the law which is violated by whites and blacks at roughly equal rates—dispelling the argument that blacks commit more of a particular crime and therefore are arrested at higher rates. The report cites the National Household Survey of Drug Abuse and Health that found in 2010 nationally 14 percent of blacks and 11.6 percent of whites reported using marijuana in the past year.

Data Examined by County and Region

The report also breaks down arrest data by county: In Iowa, Dubuque County had the worst racial disparity with 1,816 arrests per 100,000 for blacks vs. 181 for whites; followed by Woodbury County at 2,036 vs. 251; Johnson County at 1,918 vs. 247; Linn County at 2,090 vs. 284, and Clinton County at 1,148 vs. 157

(A bar chart illustrating this is attached, as are two other charts showing marijuana arrests rates from 2001-2010 and the racial disparities for Iowa's five most populous counties. The charts are also available online at www.aclu-iowa.org.)

However, according to the report, the racial disparities cut across many states, regions, and demographics, stating, "The racial disparities are as staggering in the Midwest as in the Northeast, in large counties as in small, on city streets as on country roads, in counties with high median family incomes as in counties with low median family incomes, and exist regardless of whether blacks make up 50 percent or 5 percent of the county's overall population. The racial disparities in marijuana arrest rates are ubiquitous; the difference can be found only in their degrees of severity."

A Worsening Problem

The study further found that while there were pronounced racial disparities in marijuana arrests 10 years ago, those disparities have grown significantly worse.

"The war on marijuana has largely been a war on people of color," said Ezekiel Edwards, director of the ACLU's national Criminal Law Reform Project and one of the report's primary authors. "State and local governments have aggressively enforced marijuana laws selectively against black people and communities, needless ensnaring hundreds of thousands of people in the criminal justice system at tremendous human and financial cost."

June 4, 2013