ACLU study: Black Tennesseans arrested on pot charges four times as much as whites

1:38 PM, Jun 13, 2013   |    comments
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By Bobby Allyn | The Tennessean

Black Tennesseans are arrested on marijuana possession charges four times as much as whites, despite both races using the drug at roughly the same rate, according to a new study by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Among urban counties, Davidson County had the third largest percentage increase in racial disparities in marijuana possession arrest rates in the country between 2001 and 2010. Over the course of the decade, the gap between black and white arrests for marijuana possession here grew by 355 percent.

In 2010, marijuana possession accounted for 42 percent of all drug arrests in Tennessee. All told for that year, state law enforcement agencies spent $42 million in enforcing marijuana possession laws in the state.

Blacks make up about 17 percent of Tennessee's population but comprise more than 45 percent of marijuana-related arrests.

Monroe County, where just around 2 percent of the population is black, had the most dramatic disparities in the state -- with blacks 10 times as vulnerable to being arrested on marijuana charges as whites.

In Knox County, which has the sharpest disparity in the state among urban counties, blacks are about 7 percent more likely to be arrested. There, nearly 9 percent of the population is black.

The study examined local police data in every state and broke down marijuana possession arrest rates along racial lines between 2001 and 2010. Nationwide, marijuana-related arrests account for more than half of all drug arrests, the study found. Blacks, however, were nearly four times more likely to be arrested on such charges in Tennessee and in many other states.

"Such racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests exist in all regions of the country, in counties large and small, urban and rural, wealthy and poor, and with large and small black populations," the study's authors concluded.

As the number of marijuana arrests has risen, the disparity among racial groups has worsened, according to the study. Tennessee had the sixth largest percentage increase in the difference between black and white arrests, showing a 122 percent increase over the decade.

In 2001, blacks were nearly twice as likely to be arrested on marijuana possession charges. Now, they are nearly four times as likely to be arrested, according to the study.

Deborah Burris-Kitchen, professor of criminology at Tennessee State University, who has studied arrest rates in the state, said law enforcement often patrols at-risk communities for marijuana charges more than affluent neighborhoods.

"It's a threat to our entire community," Burris-Kitchen said. "If you criminalize one group of people, then other people are going to be vulnerable to criminalization."

Dawn Deaner, Davidson County's public defender, said the findings should prompt "all of us in the criminal justice system to take a hard look at and figure out what we can do to address it."

Kristen Helm, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, said the agency cannot yet comment because TBI's statisticians are still reviewing the study.

Reach Bobby Allyn at 615-726-5990 or

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