Drug Arrests: Are Blacks Being Targeted?
According to the laws in all 50 states as well as under federal law, illicit drug possession, not just manufacture, distribution and sale, is illegal and subject to penalties. Since a person must possess a drug in order to use it, this means that anyone using an illicit drug is committing a crime.
How many people commit such crimes in the United States each year? Conveniently, there is a survey sponsored by the US Government that gives an answer. Assuring individual respondents of confidentiality, the survey asks a national cross section of the American population whether they have used any illicit drugs in the past year. According to this survey, in 1993 there were over 24 million people in the United States who were criminals because they used illicit drugs. That 24 million is close to 12 percent of the total US population in that year. If the police could only catch them, virtually all 24 million of those people would, under our laws, be subject to imprisonment or fines or both.
Supplying 24 million people with their illicit drugs of choice takes an army of sellers, all illegal. So one might think that all our law enforcement efforts would be focused on the illegal distribution system. But this is not so. In 1993, slightly less than 30 percent of the arrests for drug violations by state and local authorities were for the sale or manufacture of drugs. Over 70 percent of drug violation arrests were for possession.
In 1993 there were an estimated 791,800 arrests for illicit drug possession in the 50 states. This was a substantial and economically significant number when considered in terms of the tens of billions of dollars of law enforcement effort involved in finding them, booking them, and so on. But the 791,800 people who were arrested were only a small fraction (about three percent) of the 24 million US citizens in 1993 who broke our drug laws by possessing and using illicit drugs.
For each of the persons arrested, whether or not there is a conviction, the arrest is an undesirable event. An arrest for drug possession means a person is handcuffed, fingerprinted, jailed (at least temporarily), must often pay bail, must spend time with lawyers and court personnel, must miss work or school and, unless poor, pay the expenses attached to these activities. If convicted, or persuaded to plead guilty, the person is fined, imprisoned, or subjected to whatever combination of penalties the judge imposes, including urine testing and close supervision. The stigma of an arrest for drug possession, even if no conviction follows, may cause an employed person to lose his or her job, may make it more difficult for an unemployed person to find work, and may result in a student being expelled from school. Altogether, the consequences of arrest for drug possession are not trivial.
Given the vast pool of arrestable persons and the relatively small number of persons arrested, it is of interest to look at the characteristics of those being arrested.
Using arrests for drug violations per 100,000 citizens we can examine trends while controlling for the growth of the population. Between 1965 and 1993, arrests per 100,000 for persons of all races for drug violations grew from a low of 27 in 1965 to 452 in 1993. As can be seen from Figure 1 there was a pattern of gradually increasing arrests through 1993 with two peaks in intermediate years.
But the overall arrest rate per 100,000 masks two very different patterns. The overall pattern reflects mainly what has been happening with arrest rates for drug violations by the white population, which is the vast majority of the population. Figure 2 illustrates the very different patterns in arrest rates for whites and for blacks. While the arrest rate for whites grew very slowly over the 1965-1992 period, the arrest rate fr people of color increased substantially. And the arrest rate for African Americans age 18 and over increased most rapidly.
In Figure 3, we can compare the arrest rates for drug violations of blacks age 18 and older with that of whites age 18 and older. The arrest rate for whites in that age group increased from its 1965 low, but never got over 500 in the entire period. In 1965, the arrest rate for blacks age 18 and over was somewhat higher than for whites but what is striking is the dramatic widening of the gap between the two groups in subsequent years.
In Figure 4, we can see that the arrest rate per 100,000 white youth increased until in 1974, when it was actually higher than that for black youth. But in a few years that changed. By 1992 there was a substantial gap with many more black youth per 100,000 being arrested compared with white youth.
The high arrest rate of blacks compared to whites cannot be explained by differences in drug use. In 1993, for example, about 12 percent of both blacks and whites reported using illicit drugs sometime in the past year.
The trend data on drug arrests shown in tables 1-4 are for arrests for all types of drug violations including both sale and possession. However, for 1993, more details are available, and we can look simply at arrests for drug possession.
Using this we can examine directly the relationship between drug arrests for possession and persons who used illicit drugs in 1993, by creating a ratio of drug arrests for possession per thousand drug users. This is illustrated in Figure 5.
The results are quite striking. In 1993, there were 78 arrests of blacks for drug possession for every 1,000 black drug users, while there were only 20 arrests of whites for drug possession for every 1,000 white drug users.
The much higher ratio of drug arrests for possession per 1,000 drug users for blacks continues to be the case when we look at two subgroups, youth under 18 years of age and persons age 18 and over.
So with over 24 million drug-using persons from which to choose, how is it that drug-using blacks are being arrested for possession over three and a half times as often as drug-using whites? We need to examine the mechanisms by which African Americans are being targeted for arrest for drug possession. We also need to ask ourselves if this targeting is just.
 National Criminal Justice Association, A Guide to State Controlled Substances Acts, Revised Jan. 1991, 35 pp. plus appendices. Drug possession is also illegal in Wash. DC.
 US Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, National Household Survey on Drug Abuse: Population Estimates 1993, p. 17.
 Crime in the United States 1993, p. 216. During the period 1981-1992 between 67 and 80 percent of all arrests for drug violations were arrests for possession. See US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 1993, p. 458.
 Crime in the United States 1993, p.216. Estimated by taking 70.3 percent of the 1,126,300 total estimated arrests for drug abuse violations in 1993. These are arrests by law officers of state and local government. Agents of the federal government also made drug arrests in 1993; those arrests are not included in these statistics.
 Age-Specific Arrest Rates and Race-Specific Arrest Rates for Selected Offenses, 1965 - 1992, p. 206-7. The arrest rate figures are based on an increasing number of reporting police departments representing every increasing populations over the years. For arrest rates by race, the percent of the US population covered went from 61 percent in 1965 to 85 percent in 1992. By using arrests per 100,000, we are taking into account the changing size of the population for which arrests were reported.
 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse: Population Estimates 1993, p. 18ff.
 In 1993, the FBI estimates there were 791,800 arrests for possession. A breakdwn by race was available for 656,678 or 83 percent of those arrests. It is the racial breakdown of these 656,678 cases that is used in Figure 5. In the drug arrest data, Hispanics are not a separate group; to make the two data sets comparable, the Hispanics in the drug use data have been allocated to the white and black groups in the same proportion as Hispanics were in the general population in 1993.
Figures 1-4. Age-Specific and Race-Specific Arrest Rates for Selected Offenses, 1965-1992. For the years 1965-1992, see pp. 177, 190, and 202. For 1993, see Crime in the United States 1993, p. 220.
Figure 5. National Household Survey on Drug Abuse: Population Estimates 1993, p. 17-19. The 1993 data for drug arrests for possession are from custom printouts supplied by the FBI and dated March 27, 1995.
Age-Specific Arrest Rates and Race-Specific Arrest Rates for Selected Offenses, 1965 - 1992. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, FBI. Uniform Crime Reports. December, 1993. 208 pp.
Crime in the United States 1993. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, FBI. Uniform Crime Reports. December 1994. 393 pp.
National Household Survey on Drug Abuse: Population Estimates 1993. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 1994. 123 pp.