Madison police arrest or cite blacks for marijuana offenses at just over 12 times the rate at which they punish whites, according to data analyzed by the State Journal covering 18 months of police drug arrests.

And while national surveys show blacks and whites use pot at comparable rates, in Madison blacks make up more than half of people arrested or cited on marijuana charges, despite representing about 7 percent of the city’s population.

Madison Police Chief Mike Koval said the vastly different rates of arrests and citations were a “sad commentary” on racial disparities in the criminal justice system both locally and nationally.

They are also, Koval said, the result of failed drug enforcement efforts, leading him to endorse the legalization of marijuana.

Koval said Wisconsin should seriously consider regulating and taxing marijuana, and using revenues from those sales to fund treatment programs for harder drugs.

“The crusade on marijuana has been a palpable failure; an abject failure,” he said. “So let’s acknowledge the failure for what it is, and rededicate ourselves to ... a better way to deal with people who have addictions.”

Similar use,
dissimilar punishment

In a 2011 survey from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 12.6 percent of black respondents and 11.8 percent of whites said they had used marijuana at some point in the past year.

When it came to all illicit drugs, the survey found 8.7 percent of whites and 10 percent of blacks reported using drugs in the past month.

But in Madison and other cities across the country, the sanctions for smoking pot or using any illicit drug fall disproportionately on blacks.

For this report, the State Journal analyzed Madison police data on drug offense arrests or citations from 2013 and the first six months of 2014.

The offenses range from possession of small amounts of marijuana or drug paraphernalia — violations Madison treats with a municipal citation rather than a criminal charge — to recommended felony offenses for distributing large amounts of cocaine or heroin. The data show only arrests, not how prosecutors charge defendants or whether they are ultimately convicted.

In all, 1,538 people were arrested or cited for drug offenses in Madison during that 18-month period; 618 of them were black, and 874 were white.

Based on population figures from the most recent Census, blacks were arrested or cited for drugs in Madison at a rate of 36.5 people per 1,000. That’s nearly eight times the rate at which whites were arrested or cited, which was less than five people per 1,000.

Blacks were arrested or cited for possessing or selling marijuana at a rate of 25.3 per 1,000. Whites faced sanctions for pot at one-12th that rate: 2.1 per 1,000.

There were gulfs in arrest rates for heroin and cocaine as well.

Double standard?

Anthony Cooper, who directs re-entry services for people leaving the prison system as part of the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership and Development, said the disparity is not shocking.

“It doesn’t surprise me, because I’ve lived it,” said Cooper, who estimated half of the men he works with were incarcerated for drug offenses. Cooper himself was locked up on a drug charge more than a decade ago.

“Being a black man in this community, we know how things play out,” he said.

Use by all groups

Echoing the national survey, Lt. Jason Freedman of the Dane County Narcotics Task Force said the use of marijuana locally is spread across all racial groups.

With its large population of college students and aging hippies, and annual Marijuana Harvest Festival that brings pot smokers and advocates to State Street, it’s no secret that there is a marijuana culture in Madison.

For plenty of white residents, the prohibition of marijuana is a non-issue.

Asked if there is a double standard for marijuana use in Madison, Cooper said, “Of course.”

“You have everyone smoking marijuana on State Street. But if you were to find someone smoking on Allied Drive, South Park Street, Badger Road — that’s an automatic no-no,” Cooper said. “One minute it’s OK, the next minute it’s not.”

Chief: Ask where, not who

Koval said he could understand how the disparate rates of punishment for marijuana could lead to the perception that Madison police were selectively enforcing laws. But he disagreed, saying geography explains the gap better than race.

Drug arrests often follow a pattern of “call and response,” Koval said, in which residents call police to complain about drug dealing in their neighborhoods.

Police will also patrol troubled neighborhoods — which are often home to more diverse populations — more than they would other parts of the city in the interest of public safety, Koval said. When more officers are in a neighborhood, he said, it makes it more likely they will encounter someone using drugs out in the open.

“It’s because of where we are responding to calls for service, who we are being given information about, and what is then manifesting itself in public spaces, that contributes to … the numbers being so skewed,” Koval said.

UW-Madison professor Pamela Oliver, who has researched the impact of the criminal justice system on communities of color, said the harsher enforcement of drug laws in certain neighborhoods has been a by-product of the broader war on drugs.

“What often goes on in the drug war is, it becomes a war against an entire community,” Oliver said. “Everybody is presumed guilty, unless proven innocent.”

Koval agreed with Oliver’s point, but said going after drug dealers is part of the department’s strategy for stabilizing troubled neighborhoods, and that when officers encounter violations of the law they have to act.

“We can’t just turn a deaf ear or a blind eye to what’s happening in our midst, and expect that we can launch constructive programs while we have this destructive entity,” Koval said, referring to drug dealing.

The department also must enforce state laws prohibiting marijuana — Koval could not, he said, abolish drug laws in the city on his own.

Disparities in courts

Of course, the disparities that lead to higher rates of arrest don’t stop once a person is in handcuffs.

Oliver’s research on Wisconsin’s justice system found an “accumulating disparity” as defendants moved through the court system, which ends with tougher punishments for blacks than whites.

“There’s a high disparity in arrests, there’s a high disparity in the … ratios of convictions to arrests … and there’s a disparity in getting prison, rather than probation, after you’re convicted,” Oliver said.

More incarceration

A 2007 study from the Justice Policy Institute found black defendants in Dane County were 97 times more likely than white defendants to be incarcerated for drug offenses. Last month, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism reported whites were accepted into the county’s drug treatment court at a far greater rate than blacks.

To reduce the uneven impacts of drug enforcement, Oliver argues that marijuana should be legalized. She also takes that idea a step further, and calls for other drugs to be decriminalized.

The side-effects of making those drugs illegal, she says, have been far worse for communities than the drugs themselves.

“It’s not like decriminalizing drugs is going to make racial disparities in criminal justice go away,” she said. “But there’s so much harm being done by the drug war that it’s just not fair.”

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Nico Savidge is the higher education reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.