New federal data suggests that blacks are approximately four times more likely than whites to be arrested for charges involving marijuana.
These findings stem from a recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union, which compiled data from police records in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., reports The New York Times.
What do these numbers mean, especially when it comes to the enforcement of drug laws?
Study Suggests Racial Disparity
The ACLU study makes a number of interesting findings, including that although black and white 18- to 25-year-olds use pot at about the same rate, the arrest rate for marijuana possession is 3.73 times higher for blacks nationwide.
The lead author of the study, Ezekiel Edwards, attributes the gap between whites and blacks to racial profiling in order to round out arrest quotas in "problematic" communities, reports the Associated Press.
Even more shocking, according to Edwards' study, the arrest rate for blacks in some jurisdictions, like Iowa, was more than eight times higher for marijuana possession than for whites.
Is Racial Profiling Illegal?
Some critics point to racial profiling by police as the real reason for the apparent disparity.
Overt racial profiling is illegal, as the Supreme Court recently affirmed by telling Arizona law enforcement they could not use race or Latino ancestry as a factor to detain a suspect. However, officers often stop blacks or Latinos -- using a traffic offense as a pretext, for example -- although they may not have stopped them at all if they were white.
Regardless of the officer's true reason for a stop or detention, it's not considered illegal racial profiling if a reasonable officer could have had reasonable suspicion, not based on race, that the suspect had committed a crime.
Police Say Crime Is Crime
Some law enforcement officials don't agree with the characterization that the ACLU study has made, arguing that "the use of marijuana is a crime" and that informs how they operate, reports the AP.
That may not be so simple in a constantly shifting landscape of state laws. In states like Colorado and Washington, for example, use and possession of marijuana is only a federal crime, not a state crime.
Extreme reports of racial disparity in law enforcement not only sway public opinion, but occasionally policymakers, who make take this study as a reason to re-examine marijuana laws.