The National Latino Officers Association (NLAO) endorsed Proposition 19 Wednesday, citing a new report that found Latinos are disproportionately arrested for simple marijuana possession in California. Latinos are arrested at two to three times the rate of whites, the report found, even though they use marijuana at a lower rate than whites.
Prop 19 would legalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana by adults 21 or older and allow them to grow up to 25 square feet of pot and possess the resulting harvest. It would also allow cities and counties to permit, regulate, and tax the commercial cultivation and sale of marijuana.
"As police officers sworn to protect public safety and the well-being of our community, NLAO is proud to endorse Proposition 19," said the group's Manuel Rodriguez at a Wednesday press conference. "Prohibition is dangerous and deadly. Keeping marijuana prohibition has allowed a lucrative black market and threatened public safety in our community and the USA," he said. "Instead of making our streets safer, we're spending that money incarcerating tens of thousands of people, including many Latinos."
While Latinos are more likely than whites to be arrested for pot possession in California, they are also arrested at rates disproportionate to their numbers in the state. In Irvine, for example, Latinos make up 9% of the population, but account for 20% of all pot possession arrests. Similarly, in San Jose, Latinos account for 30% of the population, but 55% of all pot possession arrests, the report found.
California is home to some 14 million Latinos, who account for 37% of the state's population. But because many Latinos are foreign nationals, they account for only 21% of the state's electorate. Still, Latinos are the largest ethnic minority in the state, and nearly two-thirds of them are registered Democrats. Support for Prop 19 among Latino voters has varied widely in polls, and Wednesday's press conference and endorsement were designed to bring this key demographic over to the "yes" side.
"This report documents very significant and widespread disparities in arrest rates for low-level marijuana possession," said Stephen Gutwillig, California director for the Drug Policy Alliance
, which sponsored the report. "Latinos have been arrested at double and triple the rate of whites in the past few years. There has been an extraordinary escalation in arrests for small amounts of marijuana in the past 20 years," Gutwillig added, noting that pot arrests have tripled to more than 60,000 annually since 1990.
The big increase in marijuana possession busts has come as arrests for all other crimes, including other drug offenses, have dropped dramatically in the state, Gutwillig noted. "At the heart of the dramatic increase in arrests have been substantial race-based disparities, specifically targeting Latinos and African-Americans, and especially young African-Americans and Latinos."
Since federal arrest data does not include a specific category for Latinos, marijuana arrests rates for the group are substantially undercounted, Gutwillig said. Disproportionate minority arrest rates are not the result of racist cops, but a systemic problem, he added. "The disparities documented in this report are the result of routine, pervasive police practices," he said. "This is a statewide phenomenon."
Also at the press conference was Diane Goldstein, a retired lieutenant commander with the Redondo Beach Police Department and a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition
(LEAP). "The current war on drugs has not just failed," she said, "but is a policy disaster. We need solutions that deal with our communities' drug problems. We believe that through regulation, control, and taxation, we will actually decrease the likelihood of the youth in our community using marijuana," she said. "Drug abuse is a health problem, not a law enforcement matter. It is time for us to overcome our fears and and honestly assess the results of a drug war against our youth. Proposition 19 is a step in the right direction."
Police have other, more pressing priorities than nickel and dime pot busts, said Rodriguez. "We as the NLOA are backing California on this so we can concentrate on crimes that are violent," he said. "We've got worries about terrorists and explosions and two wars going on. We can concentrate more on terrorism instead of going into communities and locking up Latinos and African-Americans. We can use that money from marijuana revenues for schools and education," he said.
Proposition 19 spokesperson Dale Sky Jones also addressed the press conference. "We've found in California and across the country that currently policy has failed," she said. "We have an opportunity to take cannabis and its profits out of the hands of criminals and to put it in the hands of those who will control and regulate and tax it. Prop 19 was written to protect our kids, and we have an opportunity to create tens of thousands of green, sustainable jobs for households."
It's less than a week from election day, the vote for Prop 19 is going to be very close, and every endorsement counts. Now, the campaign has one more law enforcement group on its side.