Tale of Two Countries: Marijuana Arrests in Tennessee

African Americans are about three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites regardless of which state they live in.

Nine out of ten marijuana arrests in the U.S. are for possession. Since 2010 pot busts have decreased nationally but the rate of decline has stalled and in some states, has reversed upward.

According to a new ACLU report, A Tale of Two Countries, African Americans are 3.6 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite similar usage rates. In the last decade, this disparity has actually worsened in most states despite marijuana decriminalization in places like Minnesota and North Dakota and legalization in states like Vermont and Illinois.

Racial profiling and bias in enforcement in Tennessee mean Blacks are 3.2 times more likely to be arrested than whites for marijuana, slightly less than the national average. Per 100 thousand people, Tennessee ranks 7thamong states for highest marijuana possession arrest rates. Between 2010 and 2018, Tennessee’s arrest rate for possession increased 21%. Marshall County (349%) and Robertson County (331%) were among the top 20 counties in the U.S. for the biggest increases in arrest rates between 2010-2018.

The Black arrest rate for marijuana possession in Tennessee ranks 13th in the nation. The Black arrest rate is 820 per 100 thousand vs. 255 per 100 thousand for whites in Tennessee. Carter County in East Tennessee is the worst place in the country to get busted for pot if you are Black. Between 2010 and 2018, the percent increase in racial disparity in marijuana arrests was 976.7%.

“For decades, marijuana laws have been used to criminalize Black and Brown people, waste taxpayer money, and fuel the mass incarceration crisis,” the report states.

In states where pot is either legal or decriminalized, there are lower average arrest rates for possession and sales, as you might expect.

The ACLU notes that states are taking strides toward reforming these outdated and harmful drug laws. Eleven states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana, and 18 states have decriminalized, which means they’ve removed some of the criminal penalties for possession of small amounts. Furthermore, these reforms are driven in large part by the will of the people. Two out of three Americans — more than ever before — now support marijuana legalization.

The report findings reveal an uncomfortable truth: While there has been some progress in scaling back the war on people who use marijuana, it is still wreaking havoc in much of the U.S. Despite decades of failure, prohibition and punitiveness generally remain the centerpiece of governments’ approach to drug use. Law enforcement continues to make hundreds of thousands of marijuana possession arrests every year, accounting for almost half of all drug arrests nationwide.

According to the Vera Institute of Justice, Tennessee is second highest of six nearby states in incarceration in local jails and state prisons. In 1983, there were about 14,000 people locked up in Tennessee. In 2015, there were 48,000 people in jail or prison, an increase of 242%. Disparities exist for incarcerated Black people. In Tennessee Blacks make up 18% of the population but 36% of people in jail and 42% of people in prison.

Since 1978, the Black incarceration rate has increased 136 percent in Tennessee. In 2017, Black people were incarcerated at 3.1 times the rate of white people. In a seven state region including Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, Tennessee has the second highest rate of jail admissions and the third highest prison incarceration rate per 100 thousand population.