By Maureen Hayden
---- — INDIANAPOLIS — A new report showing significant racial disparity in marijuana arrests may revive the debate over pot penalties in Indiana.
The report, issued in early June by the American Civil Liberties Union, uses a decade’s worth of federal crime reporting data to show that black Americans are disproportionately arrested on marijuana possession charges in Indiana and across the nation.
In 2010 alone, blacks in Indiana were three times more likely to be arrested for possessing marijuana as whites, according to the ACLU report. Nationally, blacks were nearly four times more likely to be arrested on marijuana possession charges in 2010.
The report, “The War on Marijuana in Black and White,” found the disparity exists despite studies that show blacks and whites use marijuana at about the same rate.
State Sen. Karen Tallian, a liberal Democrat who forged an alliance with some conservative Republican legislators in a failed push to decriminalize marijuana possession earlier this year, said the report validates her concerns about the fairness of the state’s pot laws.
“When you have about 9 percent of the population with almost 28 percent of the arrests, you know something is wrong,” said Tallian of numbers found in the ACLU report comparing the state’s black population in 2010 to that year’s marijuana possession arrests.
Tallian said the report’s findings on the fiscal impact of pot laws may also help re-ignite the debate over the state’s pot penalties, which are some of the toughest in the nation.
It found Indiana spent almost $29 million in 2010 alone on police, courts, and prison costs to enforce Indiana’s marijuana possession laws.
“When you look at the fiscal costs, it’s just amazing,” Tallian said.
The ACLU used numbers from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program to make its case for legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana, examining arrests in all 50 states and in nearly 500 counties for a decade.
While it found the racial disparity in pot arrests in Indiana statewide is less than the national average, it also found that in about 30 counties in Indiana – including urban, suburban and rural counties — the racial disparity was higher than the national average.
Elkhart County Prosecutor Curtis Hill, who is black, questioned the validity of the report, which found Elkhart County had the highest racial disparity in marijuana arrests in the state.
“You can’t look at raw numbers and decide we’re targeting certain groups for arrests,” said Hill.
“We treat people the same here,” Hill added. “There’s plenty of crime out there. I don’t have to go out looking for it in a particular segment of the population. I’m going after criminals, not criminals of a certain race.”
Yet Hill also conceded there are factors at play that may contribute to the racial differences in arrest rates between blacks and whites for marijuana possession.
Police who concentrate their efforts in poorer neighborhoods with high minority populations and high crime rates are likely to have arrests that are both racially and economically skewed, he said.
“Sometimes they’re just slicker,” said Hill of white marijuana users in more affluent communities. “They’re not out on the street corner getting their drugs.”
Ezekiel Edwards, director of the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project and the lead author of the report, said the report’s findings show 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 in those with both large and small black populations.
Those disparities exist despite studies that show marijuana is used by blacks and whites at roughly the same rate, he said.
“You can go to any college campus and find plenty of kids with marijuana,” Edwards said. “If we don’t think it’s a good use of our resources to be busting white college kids, than why is it a good use of our resources to be busting young black kids in poor neighborhoods?”
The ACLU report calls for states like Indiana to reduce or eliminate criminal penalties for marijuana possession, or to outright legalize it, while taxing and regulating it like alcohol and cigarettes.
That’s not a step Indiana legislators seem willing to take, but there has been considerable debate on the issue.
Last November, the head of the Indiana State Police told a state budget committee that he personally favors legalizing marijuana so it can be regulated and taxed. In December, the powerful conservative Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Brent Steele of Bedford, came out in support of Tallian’s proposal to turn possession of small amounts of marijuana into an infraction, like a speeding ticket.
By January, the Republican authors of a massive criminal code reform bill proposed reducing all marijuana possession penalties to misdemeanors.
But the debate came to a halt when Republican Gov. Mike Pence threatened to veto any measure that significantly reduced pot penalties.
Tallian said she isn’t giving up and may introduce a bill to legalize marijuana possession for recreational use, following in the footsteps of several states.
“I’m going to keep pushing this conversation,” Tallian said. “If I have to keep pushing it until we get a new governor, I will.”