More than four months have passed since the city of Dallas instituted a cite-and-release policy for people found with small amounts of marijuana. The program is a gesture toward a reality that’s shaping bolder reforms across the country: Arresting people for possessing a substance that most Americans favor legalizing is not only unjust, it’s a waste of limited police resources, especially in cop-strapped Dallas.
While cite-and-release has kept some people out of jail, it hasn’t addressed another glaring issue with the enforcement of marijuana laws. The Dallas Observer reports that of the 48 people cited and released by Dallas police for marijuana possession since December, only two were white. Racial disparities in marijuana arrests, nationally, have been well-documented for years.
Those same disparities persist even in places where marijuana has been legalized. A report by the Drug Policy Alliance found that while overall marijuana arrests have gone down in places like Colorado and Washington, black people are still far more likely to be arrested on charges related to underage possession, public consumption, or unlicensed sales. Vox.com weighs in:
The disparities are not explained by differences in black and white marijuana use rates. Surveys show black and white Americans use cannabis at similar levels.
Instead, there seems to be some level of bias built into the criminal justice system. Perhaps it’s individual racial biases among police officers. Maybe it’s how police are disproportionately deployed in minority communities, purportedly because they have higher levels of crime.
Then there are socioeconomic disparities that may drive some groups to, for example, more frequently use and sell drugs outdoors instead of indoors. All of these factors and others are likely working together to maintain racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
Something as dramatic as the federal reform of marijuana laws, unlikely as that may be while Pete Sessions chairs the House Rules Committee, won’t solve this particular problem. Inequality is the norm in marijuana enforcement, as in everything else in Dallas, and it won’t be undone by a measure as half-baked as cite-and-release.
The Observer notes that most defendants charged with marijuana possession under the cite-and-release program have made their court dates, and most are being offered deals that keep them from serving time behind bars. Great. Cite-and-release isn’t a bad policy. But it’s just a very, very small step in the right direction.