W.Va. cannabis arrest data indicate racist law enforcement

Editors Note: The headline to this story has been updated to reflect the story more effectively. Parthenon editors realize there is a problem in the world of mass media where racism is not always  outwardly addressed. To avoid furthering this dangerous stigma, the language in the headline has been adjusted. Previously, the headline was ‘Racial disparities apparent in W.Va. cannabis arrests.’

Black people in West Virginia are 7.3 times more likely than white people to be arrested for cannabis possession despite national usage rates being similar, a report released Monday by the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia reveals.

“This report makes clear what many of us have known for some time, which is that West Virginia is one of the worst in the nation for how it treats cannabis offenses both in terms of overall arrests and racial disparities,” Eli Baumwell, ACLU-WV policy director, said. “This is inexcusable.”

The report, which examines cannabis arrests made from 2010-2018, indicates that West Virginia’s racial disparity in cannabis arrests is worse than every other U.S. state except Montana, Kentucky and Illinois and is more than twice the national average. Nationally, black people are 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested.

The report found that there were nearly 9,000 cannabis arrests in West Virginia in 2018. The same year, there were more than 600,000 cannabis-related arrests nationally, which is 100,000 more than were made in 2015 and more than the number of arrests made for all violent crimes combined.

The report shows that from 2010-2018, cannabis possession arrests have increased nearly 50% in West Virginia, and racial disparities have not improved. West Virginia is one of only 10 states in the U.S. where black people are more than five times more likely than white people to be arrested for possession.

According to the report, Preston and Putnam counties have the worst racial disparities in cannabis arrests among counties that meet population and reporting thresholds. In both Preston and Putnam counties, black people are 25 times more likely than white people to be arrested for cannabis-related offenses.

The data indicates Cabell County, where black people are 3.4 times more likely than white people to be arrested, has the lowest racial disparity in cannabis arrests in the state and slightly lower than the national average. The data for each county can be found at https://graphics.aclu.org/marijuana-arrest-report/WV.

Del. Sean Hornbuckle (D- Cabell, 16) said racial disparities in cannabis arrests, both statewide and nationwide, can likely be attributed to stereotypes and misinformation about cannabis perpetuated by politicians and other powerful officials, particularly those keen on ensuring usage of cannabis remains a crime.

“There is still a lot of misinformation and falsehoods about cannabis and a lot of folks in our society who try to demonize it and correlate it to certain groups of people,” said Hornbuckle, who is a co-sponsor of state legislation to legalize cannabis.

Hornbuckle said politicians who perpetuate such misinformation are keen on arresting as many people as possible for cannabis-related offenses to help solidify common stereotypes and other falsehoods about the drug and its users.

“If you can lock people up and demonize this thing, you further solidify your perspective with your supporters and your base,” he said. “It just helps to build that inaccurate narrative and support their claims and get done what they want to get done.”

Hornbuckle said racial disparities in arrests are also likely a result of disproportionate levels of poverty in black and other minority communities and the targeting of such communities by law enforcement.

“People with wealth are doing the exact same things,” he said. “If you go sit on the corner of any impoverished area and try to flag people down, this is what’s going to happen. But if you go sit on the corner of some gated community, you’re still going to find things. You’ll find it where you’re looking for it.”

Hornbuckle noted that since the war on drugs began and more arrests started to be made nationwide for minor drug offenses, drug usage has only gone up in the vast majority of communities.

“Since the 80s, we’ve locked up more people than God could imagine, and we know who are suffering the brunt of those arrests, but drug usage is still on the rise,” he said. “But only certain people are being locked up. I’m not saying more people should be locked up, but there should be equity there. It’s just one plus one equals two. Some people aren’t being arrested here. Some people are getting a free pass.”

Gov. Jim Justice signed West Virginia’s medical cannabis bill, SB 386, into law more than three years ago, on April 19, 2017, but progress has all but stalled since then, Hornbuckle said.

 “We’re in 2020, and forget even having a program, but to my knowledge, we don’t even have a licensing program for medicinal users. To my knowledge, we don’t even have a process in place to figure out who may qualify to have a medical cannabis card.”

Hornbuckle encouraged those who support cannabis legalization to make their voices heard by politicians with leadership roles in the state House and Senate.

“We could have the best ideas in the world—we could be the best legislators in the world—but if we can’t get a vote on something, it doesn’t really matter,” he said.

Douglas Harding can be contacted at [email protected].