Like three American presidents, I’ve smoked pot.
Luckily for me, I’m white and I live in Washington, D.C. That means there’s almost no chance that I’ll be arrested for a marijuana crime.
Credit: American Civil Liberties Union, D.C. Chapter
Decriminalizing the drug would be an easy fix for lawmakers. A bill that recently passed on the committee level in the D.C. city council would reduce the penalty for possession of up to an ounce of the drug to a $25 fine. The measure, sponsored by Councilmember Tommy Wells — a mayoral candidate, white and Democratic — has broad support among elected officials, and the Council is expected to vote on it on February 4 and again in early March.
D.C. was once known as “the chocolate city” but the historically black town has become a lot whiter in recent decades. In 1970, blacks made up 71 percent of D.C. residents. Now they only make up about 50 percent.
African Americans are still the ones getting arrested for marijuana, though, and my neighborhood, Columbia Heights, is indicative of that trend.
In August, I reviewed the monthly arrest log for D.C.’s third police district, an area that includes Columbia Heights, as well as parts of other gentrified neighborhoods nearby like Adams Morgan, Shaw and Mt. Pleasant.
Sixty-one people were arrested for marijuana crimes in the third district from August 1 to August 27.
Only two of those arrested were white. Six were Hispanic. Fifty-three were black.
I looked again six months later. From January 1 to January 28, African Americans made up 43 of 45 marijuana-related arrests.
Credit: Ted Hesson/Fusion
Several high-profile reports in the past year have shown that blacks are almost exclusively the ones getting arrested for marijuana crimes.
That’s put the Metropolitan Police Department on the defensive. In response to a report last year on the high arrest rate of black residents, the department posted a lengthy rebuttal on its website. The gist: that the high arrest rate of African Americans doesn’t tell the whole story. The department calls for more review of the phenomenon, looking at factors like employment, income and education.
The imbalanced arrest rate doesn’t necessarily mean that police engage in racial profiling. But both police and elected officials seem to realize that it’s hard to ignore the implication, since whites and blacks use pot at about the same rate.
“The criminalization of small amounts of marijuana has not served the public well, and in fact it’s had a disservice on the public,” the decriminalization bill’s sponsor, Councilmember Wells, told Fusion in August. “We’ve got so many young people who are unable to get jobs because they have a criminal charge against them. And very often it’s just for a small amount of marijuana. And in D.C. — and I think nationally this is true, as well — but in D.C., it’s had a disproportionate impact on African Americans. We want our police to really focus on violent crimes and other crimes.”
The decriminalization bill will try to remedy the arrest gap. The legislation also prohibits police from using the smell of pot alone as reasonable suspicion of a crime, taking away a possible pretext for searches.
If the bill is passed in the Council and signed into law by Mayor Vincent Gray, a supporter, it will need to clear another hurdle, unique to Washington. The law will be subject to a 60-day congressional review.
Congress has been known to intervene in D.C. politics when social issues come into play. Laws around needle exchanges, school vouchers and abortion have all been blocked in the past.
The path seems clearer this time around. Even if Republicans in the House object to the measure, the Democrat-controlled Senate likely wouldn’t do anything to stop it. That’s means the decriminalization bill could become law by May.
If local legislators in D.C. pass a bill to decriminalize marijuana, they won’t be trailblazers, since 16 other states have already passed similar measures. But doing it in the nation’s capital — with the approval of Congress — would only further emphasize the divide between federal, state and local laws when it comes to the drug.
For some residents, the relief is already coming too late.
The perception of bias
“They wait until it gets dark before they do anything,” Evette Suesbury says. “And then they just jump out on them and they either get them with resisting arrest or they shake ‘em up bang ‘em around and let them go.”
Suesbury lives in a two-story apartment in Columbia Heights Village, a government-subsidized housing development that feels a world apart from the luxury condos you’ll find a few minutes’ walk to the north or south. She’s black, as are most of the families in the development.
When I visit her in September, she’s not in good health, obese and permanently disabled from the complications of a stroke. A neighbor lets me into her apartment, and I find her sitting in a nightgown next to her bed, which is in the living room. She’s 54 years old and has lived in the apartment complex for half of her life, serving on a tenant board in the past.
She has seven children and she tells me how her oldest son was arrested four years ago for marijuana possession. He was 20 years old at the time, and was hanging outside with some friends one night near the apartment.
“They searched him and everything. They didn’t find anything,” she says. “Then they started flashing flashlights all around and they found this little piece of a weed stump or something.”
No one wants to be arrested for anything, including marijuana possession. But for an affluent person, a good lawyer could help fight a charge like that. For the poor, the repercussions are steeper.
“Well, they locked him up,” Suesbury says. “When they locked him up, they were working with management and everything. They told me that I had to take him off my lease. I said, ‘For what, he hasn’t been convicted of anything and I’m not going to do it. Because he helps to take care of me, he’s my oldest child, I refuse to take him off the lease.’”
Number of Arrests for Marijuana in the District of Columbia, by Race (2010)
Credit: American Civil Liberties Union, D.C. Chapter
Under federal law, a tenant can lose the right to government-subsidized housing because of a drug crime. That’s left a lot of families in a difficult position. Federal guidelines require all tenants residing in a government-subsidized building to be listed on the lease. To break that rule is to risk your housing.
Suesbury says her son tried to fight the charge but was unsuccessful. She took him off the lease. “It meant he had to sneak into the house and sleep at night,” she says.
She understands that crime is a problem in the area and she accepts the need for police. Still, she feels unfairly singled out.
“One thing I don’t understand, they target clusters of black people but if you come out here on a Friday night or a Saturday night, you can see clusters of white people walking to Adams Morgan or walking from Adams Morgan, belligerent drunk, cussing, talking loud, even hitting each other… But no cops never pop out of the blue and do anything.”
How pot arrests relate to gentrification
I moved to Washington about a year ago and decided to look for an apartment in Columbia Heights on the advice of a colleague.
After a decade living in Manhattan, I wanted to live somewhere walkable, diverse, fun and, most importantly, affordable. I didn’t need to look around too much; one stop at a local bar with a pressed tin ceiling and three-dollar beers and I was sold.
It’s always difficult to define the borders of gentrifying neighborhoods, obscured as they are by real estate agents and the perceptions of newcomers. But I think I live pretty close to the dividing line between this neighborhood and another less gentrified place called Petworth.
I still see some of the crime that defined Columbia Heights a decade ago. I’ve been offered cocaine on a street corner near my apartment and have come across a fair amount glass from broken car windows. But there aren’t shootouts at night, at least not that I’ve noticed.
That’s a change from when my neighborhood councilman, Jim Graham, was first elected to the D.C. city council in 1998. Crime was a serious concern, particularly in Columbia Heights, one of the neighborhoods in the ward.
“When I took office, Columbia Heights was a powerful drug market,” Graham said. “Gangs controlled the area. It was vacant lots with chain link fences; it was a no-man’s land in the evening; it was horrendous. And all of that, as you can see, has not been fixed permanently or completely, but it is a night-and-day difference.”
Jim Graham, a member of the D.C. City Council, at the dedication of an AIDS Memorial in 2007.
The racial demographics in the neighborhood have radically shifted in recent years, as well. In one neighborhood zip code, whites went from making up 22 percent of residents in 2000 to 47 percent in 2010. That made it one of the fastest gentrifying areas in the country.
Yet black residents are still the ones being arrested for marijuana. In the third police district, which includes the heart of Columbia Heights, 96 percent of the pot arrests from January 1 to January 28 were of blacks, right in step with the citywide rates. In other words, way out of balance.
Councilman Graham, a 68-year-old white man and a recovering alcoholic, supports the decriminalization of marijuana, but he won’t call the disproportionate arrests in Columbia Heights racial profiling.
He sees a racial pattern, possibly caused by police pursuing gangs.
"There are a significant number of African American and Latino crews,” he said. “I don't know of any white gangs in Ward 1. We know that part of the crew culture is to create revenue through the sales of drugs…that may have led — I have no data to support this — but I suspect it has led to more Latinos and African Americans arrested for possession."
Pot arrests and police culture
The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) declined to comment for this article, but the department has publicly rejected the idea that its officers would engage in racial profiling.
MPD Chief Cathy L. Lanier penned a June 2013 op-ed in the Washington Post rejecting the findings in the ACLU report.
“The ACLU also appears not to understand our city very well,” she wrote. “It is, indeed, a sad fact that blacks represent a disproportionate number of arrestees in the District; the proportions are similar for marijuana arrests, for other narcotics and all arrests. But this is a complex issue that cannot be boiled down to an allegation that MPD selectively enforces the law against our black communities.”
Lanier points out that police in certain neighborhoods received a higher volume of calls from residents complaining about drugs. That would prompt officers to respond.
She also notes that several other law enforcement agencies in the area contribute to the drug arrest total, and that 9 percent of marijuana arrests in 2010 came from outside agencies.
After the Washington Lawyers’ Committee, a local advocacy group, released a report on the racial disparity for arrests in D.C., the police department responded on its website, saying, among other things, that “comparison of racial proportions alone is not sufficient for examining this important issue.”
D.C. isn’t the only place with lopsided enforcement of marijuana laws. Across the country, blacks are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for pot than whites, according to a 2013 report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). But the problem is especially pronounced in Washington, which had the highest per-capita arrest rate nationwide in 2010.
Credit: American Civil Liberties Union
Ronald Hampton, a former community relations officer with the Metropolitan Police Department, believes that there are systemic practices that keep enforcement focused on one group.
Hampton, a 69-year-old with a white beard and an earring in his left ear, spent more than two decades with the department before retiring in 1994. He’s also a former executive director of the National Black Police Association.
He said that police generally know about public areas where drugs are sold or consumed. These spots yield easier arrests, which tend to be of non-whites.
“The police go a step further and come in, stop the people on the corner, talk to them, and then search them,” he said. “If they don’t find nothing, then they let them go. Well, the people on the corner don’t know that they don’t have to consent to a search.”
Hampton said that rights can be ignored in these situations. “There probably are a lot of illegal searches that take place,” he said.
Wrongly singled out
Danni Cunningham at an August 2013 community meeting in Columbia Heights. (Credit: Ted Hesson/Fusion)
Through the summer, Columbia Heights residents met at a series of community meetings to address racial profiling. One meeting, at a Unitarian Church, drew more than 100 people. While the crowd was racially mixed, the majority of attendees were white.
Seema Sadanandan, an organizer, filmmaker and lawyer with the D.C. chapter of the ACLU, spoke to the audience about the high arrest rate for blacks.
“Does the disparity in arrests mean racial profiling? I’m going to tell you the answer is no,” she said. “There are so many different factors that contribute to why one community is getting arrested. Maybe one community tends to be outside more, maybe one community is the only community using this roadway. So the disparity alone does not equal racial profiling.”
“But when you control for other the factors, when you control for the criminal behavior itself, like marijuana — marijuana is the perfect example because you know white people smoke a lot of weed. So we know that when you control for those factors and the disparity persists, then that draws a red flag. But nowhere in these numbers could we prove racial profiling, because racial profiling is an experience that people have, and it can only come from the stories of the people.”
She’s right: the fact that blacks are the ones arrested for marijuana doesn’t prove racial profiling. But plenty of black residents have had the experience of being stopped and frisked by a D.C. police officer, seemingly without cause.
Danni Cunningham is one of those residents. Cunningham, a 23-year-old college student and freelance graphic designer who has lived in Columbia Heights most of her life, told her story at an August community forum.
In December 2012, she went out with a friend to a restaurant serving crepes in central part of Washington, D.C. Danni is black; her friend, Hispanic.
Cunningham says she doesn’t drink and doesn’t use drugs and that night was no different. “When I was young both of my parents were addicts and I was raised by my aunt,” she says. “Growing up, I’ve seen what drugs can do to a person and I just never wanted to do it at all.”
An attendee at the community forum in Columbia Heights. (Credit: Ted Hesson/Fusion)
When they went to the restaurant that night, there was a charity event where the crowd was mostly white. “We kind of got looks, kind of like we weren’t wanted in the place,” she says.
After eating, she got into her friend’s 1996 Ford Bronco. On the ride home, they were pulled over by police, seemingly, she says, without reason.
“I’m not too sure if they were undercover,” she says. “They didn’t have the typical uniform that most police have on…They were just asking us, ‘Any drugs in the car? And we were like, ‘No, there’s no drugs in the car, we’re not even like that.’”
The police also asked if they had weapons, according to Cunningham. They asked her friend to get out of the car, laid him on top of the hood of the car and searched him. A few minutes later, she says, she was asked to exit the vehicle. She was told to lean up against the car and searched.
“They didn’t ask for my permission,” she says.
Once they were searched, the officers let her and her friend leave, but Cunningham says she was crying and shaken by the event.
“We knew it was racial profiling, but we just couldn’t believe it had happened,” she says. “I just think that’s something people just don’t talk about, you kind of want to forget, kind of want to act like it never happened.”
Her friend had an air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror, Danni remembers. That can sometimes serve as a pretext for a traffic stop. But he was never issued a ticket.
She told some family members about the incident but didn’t complain to the police department or public officials. Over the summer, she learned about the community meeting to address racial profiling and chose to attend.
Her decision to share her story came unexpectedly. Some other community members encouraged her.
“I am an introvert, but I speak when I feel strongly about something, or when I feel it’s fitting for me to share something,” she said. “I just felt like it was the appropriate time to share.”
Solving a bigger problem
Barring any interference from Congress, D.C. will likely decriminalize pot this spring. That’s good news for blacks in the District who have been targeted for possession crimes, and either marred by a criminal record or the psychological impact of an unwarranted police stop.
But it won’t change a deeper concern in this rapidly changing city. The one-sided marijuana arrest rate isn’t the only area where blacks have been statistically more likely to attract police attention.
The report by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee found that blacks were also more likely to be arrested for other non-violent crimes, like traffic violations. When it came to violations that are harder to detect based on behavior — like driving on a suspended license — blacks were far more likely to be arrested.
Credit: Washington Lawyers’ Committee
Just as with marijuana arrests, these patterns don’t prove racial profiling. But combined with anecdotal evidence, it certainly raises red flags.
When I spoke with Ronald Hampton, the ex-cop who now advocates against police abuses, he had mixed feelings about the marijuana decriminalization bill. He sees it as an improvement, since it removes a pretext for searches and arrests, but the deeper worry for him is the culture of police.
“The police are still going to be here, they’re going to still be doing what they do, and every now and then, they’re going to still abuse people because that’s what they do, it’s part of their culture,” he said. “The low-level marijuana arrests didn’t make them do it, they’ve been doing it when heroin was a problem, they’ve been doing it when there was no drug problem, they’re going to continue to do what they do. I believe that.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said the bill would be subject to a 30-day congressional review. The period is 60 days.
Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.