A U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study found that 19 percent of 18- to 25-year-old U.S. whites had used marijuana in the past month.

Photo by: courtesy of Flickr/warrantedarrest

A U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study found that 19 percent of 18- to 25-year-old U.S. whites had used marijuana in the past month.

Gary Sanders and Connie Wilson wanted to buy some marijuana, so they hopped on the L Train and headed east one night in October. The Friday evening rush hour crowd had already passed, so they were able to find seats. Sanders’s leg bounced up and down. He stared at the gray linoleum subway floor. They were going to a concert in a few hours and the logistics of the night strained his mind.

Will the box office close?… Should we pick up our tickets then go home and get ready or should we just pick them up when we get there?

They got off after a few stops. Sanders bounded up the station stairs two at a time and Wilson kept up with staccato steps. They exited the station and walked to a nearby street corner. A sedan pulled up along the sidewalk. Wilson opened the passenger door and got in. She talked to the man driving, then told Sanders to get in. The car slowly accelerated.

“Hey, how’s it going, man?” Sanders said to the driver, a guy called Fox.

“What’s up, man?” Fox responded.

Stray food wrappers, soda cans and a torn t-shirt littered the back seat. They rustled whenever the car made a turn. Fox was a friend of a friend of a friend of Wilson’s. Like his passengers, he was white and in his early twenties.

“Yeah this is pretty good quality. I’d let you guys try it first, but I have to get back home pretty quick. There’s a party at my house,” Fox said.

“Oh it’s cool, no worries,” said Wilson.

Fox handed her a small plastic Ziplock bag, barely big enough to hold a pair of cufflinks. A couple of nuggets of weed—20 bucks’ worth—were pressed together inside it. The car eased to a stop at the same corner it picked up the couple. Wilson handed Sanders the Ziplock bag and he put it in his backpack. They got out and entered the subway station.

Whites Rarely Arrested On Marijuana Charges

Drug deals like this take place everyday among young whites all over New York City—in Upper Eastside lofts and Soho cafes, among professionals and college students. And just like this one, they generally happen without arousing the suspicion of police.

Last week, the New York Police Department announced that it had arrested five Columbia University undergraduates accused of selling or possessing cocaine, marijuana, LSD, ecstasy, and other drugs, in an undercover bust called Operation Ivy League. Four of those arrested were white. But in 2009, only 10 percent of the 46,000 people arrested on marijuana-related charges by the New York City Police Department were white—according to a study published earlier this year—though whites are the city’s largest racial group and some of its heaviest drug users. The result: while police crackdown on drug deals in mostly minority neighborhoods, the drug trade among whites in New York City operates with relative impunity.

This racial disparity has troubled drug policy reformers for at least a decade, but recent public scrutiny of the city’s policing policies has made the disparity even more glaring.

A class action lawsuit filed against the NYPD in 2008—by the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York-based non-profit organization—claims that the city’s stop-and-frisk policy violates the rights of innocent citizens and often amounts to racial profiling. The racial profiling contributes to disparities in marijuana related arrests, says Harry Levine, a sociology professor at Queens College, who has conducted extensive research on New York City drug policy. Fifty-three percent of the people stopped in 2009 were black and 10 percent were white, the Center for Constitutional rights found, closely mirroring the city’s marijuana arrest rates.

Stop-and-frisk received more negative press in July, when Governor David Paterson signed a bill forcing the NYPD to erase a database containing information about 2.5 million police stops that did not result in arrests.

Also, during the summer, the NYPD’s policing tactics generated further controversy, when the Village Voice and The New York Times reported that, on tape recordings of several NYPD meetings, police chiefs could be heard setting quotas for summonses and threatening officers who failed to meet those quotas. Some say these quotas help contribute to the racial disparities in marijuana related arrests by encouraging police to stop-and-frisk more.

Mayor Bloomberg’s office did not respond to questions regarding the city’s drug enforcement policy nor the city’s policing strategies.

The NYPD also did not respond to an email seeking comment on the racial disparity of marijuana arrests.

But in public statements and interviews with the press, Bloomberg and officials from the NYPD have framed stop-and-frisk as a method for removing illegal guns from the streets.

“We have a duty as well, one that rises above partisan politics, and one we will pursue relentlessly,” said Mayor Bloomberg in his 2006 inaugural address. “And that is to rid our streets of guns and punish all of those who possess and traffic in these instruments of death.”

The problem isn’t just illegal guns, says David Evans, a special advisor to the non-profit drug prevention organization Drug Free America. On average, black and Latino communities have higher rates of violence, much of which stems from drug trafficking. Blacks and Latinos are arrested more for drug crimes, he says, in part because drug crimes are being tacked onto more serious criminal offenses.

In 2009, black suspects accounted for 66 percent of all violent crimes and black and Latino suspects combined to account for 96 percent of all reported shootings, according to NYPD statistics. Minority communities, NYPD Chief Raymond Kelly has said, benefit from the heightened enforcement.

“They want crime to go down, but they don’t want to be stopped and they don’t want their sons to be stopped, so it’s a challenge,” he told the New York Times in 2007.

But a recent report by the Center for Constitutional Rights, calls into question the Bloomberg administration’s assertion that they stop and frisk blacks and Latinos more to nab more illegal guns. The October report said that, during the first half of 2010, the NYPD were 30 percent more likely to find a weapon when stopping a white person than when stopping a black person.

Marquez Claxton, a former undercover narcotics officer with the NPYD, believes illegal guns are a ruse and a pretext for the police department’s racial profiling. Low-income minorities, he says, make easy targets for cops to meet their quota demands.

Even if minority communities tend to have higher levels of violence, he says, police should also enforce drug laws in white communities. “What they use as an excuse for the target enforcement is that crime is running rampant in the black and Latino populations, that we need heightened enforcement in their communities, but they are targeted because they are economically deprived, not well-versed in legal strategy and not powerful enough to fight back,” says Claxton, who served the NYPD for 20 years. “If they looked as hard down on Wall Street or on the Upper Eastside for marijuana, they would find it.”

“Marijuana possession arrests have systematically excluded the largest groups of marijuana users in New York City—whites and the middle class,” Levine says. “Instead, these hundreds of thousands of manufactured marijuana arrests and jailings have fallen overwhelmingly on people least able to defend themselves against the onslaught—young, low-income blacks and Latinos.”

Racially Segregated Drug Markets

For six years, criminologists Erik Fritsvold and Rafik Mohamed immersed themselves in the drug network of affluent college students at a private southern California university. They published their research in the book Dorm Room Dealers: Drugs and the Privileges of Race and Class. The book explains how the dealers and buyers within the network operated relatively free from the threat of law enforcement.

According to Fritsvold and Mohamed, the “white collar” dealers and buyers had three distinct advantages over their low-income counterparts: they were perceived to have the money and power to fight a charge in court, making them unattractive arrest targets to police; they did not fit the stereotype of drug dealers and users, and thus weren’t overtly suspected by law enforcement; and, perhaps most importantly, they were able to conduct business in private, residential locations.

A 2006 study headed by researcher Stephen Sifaneck for the science journal Alcohol and Drug Dependence explained that in the “white collar” market, drug dealers deliver the weed directly to their customers’ homes or meet them in a location the dealer knows to be safe, like a familiar park or bar. The dealers only sell to people who have been previously vouched for by trusted sources. The customers are professionals or students.

Such advantages partly explain why there’s a racial disparity in marijuana arrests, says Fritsvold. Over five years of data collection, Sifaneck’s study found that two-thirds of the people who bought weed from the white collar market were white and two-thirds of the people who bought weed from the street market were black.

But history suggests another reason minorities get arrested on marijuana charges more than whites—the first U.S. laws banning the drug were inspired by anti-Mexican xenophobia. The laws were enacted in the early 1900s, after a wave of Mexican immigrants arrived in the American southwest, driven there by their country’s Revolution of 1910, according to Reefer Madness, a book by investigative reporter Eric Schlosser. The immigrants’ custom of smoking marijuana was vilified by local whites, who depicted the drug as “an alien intrusion into American life, capable of transforming healthy teenagers into sex-crazed maniacs,” Schlosser writes. “Rumors spread that Mexicans were distributing this ‘killer weed’ to unsuspecting American school children,” Schlosser writes.

End The Drug War?

The national discussion over the effectiveness and justness of America’s war on drugs was reignited when California introduced a ballot measure last month that would have legalized recreational marijuana use. Proposition 19 failed, but 46 percent of Californians did vote in favor.

New York State has been having a similar public debate about the drug for decades. The legislature decriminalized marijuana possession in 1977. Since then, state law has issued first and second time offenders caught with 25 grams or less a civil citation, similar to a traffic ticket. But some groups are pushing for greater liberalization of state marijuana laws. The wave of reform efforts sweeping the country is bound to strike New York State soon, says Gabriel Sayegh, the director of the New York office of the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization dedicated to reforming drug laws. “It’s highly probable that there will be an initiative to tax and regulate marijuana in New York in the near future,” he says.

The sooner all jurisdictions liberalize marijuana, the sooner racial disparities in enforcement will disappear, Fritsvold says. “The solution to the disproportionate impact of the war on drugs on low-income minorities is a wholesale reexamination of the punitive prohibition approach to the war on drugs,” he says. As long as people in power aren’t affected, why should they care about the disparity, he asks. “There would be a much more realistic conversation about reform if the drug laws were applied to upper class individuals as well,” he says.

Claxton believes the time and effort spent ticketing and arresting minor drug offenders could be used more effectively and the discussion of drug policy reform should remain open. But he says the laws aren’t the problem; and the prohibition of recreational marijuana use should remain in effect.

Fixing the racial disparity of marijuana arrests, he says, can only begin by shifting how the police measure success.

“You need to change the mindset of law enforcement,” Claxton says. “It becomes factory work. They’re more concerned with numbers and statistics than with making the community safer. It’s all about numbers, numbers, numbers.”

Buying While White

Meanwhile, the dealers and buyers of the white collar drug market continue their trade.

Samuel Allen hopped on the 1 train and headed south one night in October looking to buy some weed. He got off at a stop that is usually crowded, but it was 11:45 p.m. on a Tuesday night so there weren’t many people there. Near the exit stairwell, three police officers stood silently. Samuel walked a block west and entered a bar. About a dozen people sat drinking and talking around the main room.

As Samuel approached the bar he made eye contact with the bartender and nodded. The two of them converged at an open spot beside the beer taps and the bartender plopped a fresh Blue Moon bottle in front of Samuel. They slapped hands.

“Hey what’s up buddy,” said Samuel.

“Nothing much man, how ‘bout yourself?” replied the bartender.

“Just chillin’ man.”

The bartender left to serve another customer. After twenty minute or so, he returned, walked up to Samuel and extended his right arm.

“You bouncing right now?” said the bartender.

“Yeah man,” said Samuel.

“Cool man, good seeing you as always.”

A wadded up paper towel was in the bartender’s right hand and when the two slapped hands, the wad—an-eigth-ounce of weed—ended up in Samuel’s palm. The bartender walked off to clear some glasses on the other end of the bar. Samuel downed the rest of his beer in one gulp then pulled three $20 bills from his wallet and pinned it under the empty glass. He stuffed the wad into his pants pocket and walked back to his Upper Westside apartment.

Correction: A previous version of this story mis-attributed two sources of data. Analysis of the racial disparities in stop-and-frisk came from the Center for Constitutional Rights not Harry Levine. Analysis of the racial makeup of the white collar drug market come from Stephen Sifaneck, not Dorm Room Dealers: Drugs and the Privileges of Race and Class.