According to a national report released by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, blacks in Rhode Island were arrested for drug possession at almost three times the rate of whites in 2014. That rate was higher than the national average, which shows blacks being arrested at about two-and-a-half times the rates of whites. This major disparity at both the state and national level exists even though national studies repeatedly show that blacks and whites generally use drugs at roughly similar rates.

ACLU of Rhode Island executive director Steven Brown called Rhode Island’s 2.9:1 black to white ratio for drug possession arrests “especially troubling” since the report indicates that Rhode Island actually has one of the lowest rates in the country for drug possession arrests per overall population. That, said Brown, “makes the racial disparity in these arrest rates particularly alarming, troubling and noteworthy.”

Three years ago, the ACLU issued a report that looked solely at marijuana possession arrests between 2001 and 2010, and it uncovered similar findings. In Rhode Island, over the course of the ten years studied in that report, the racial disparity in marijuana possession arrests varied from 2.6 to 3.6 black-to-white.

The national report, Every 25 Seconds: The Human Toll of Criminalizing Drug Use in the United States, noted that across the United States, police make more arrests for drug possession than for any other crime, and that drug possession accounts for more than one of every nine arrests by state law enforcement agencies across the country. Calling the war on drugs a complete failure that is destroying lives and communities, the report called for decriminalization of personal drug use and possession.  Instead, the report said, there should be a stronger investment in public health, emphasizing evidence-based prevention; education around the risks of drug use and dependence; and voluntary, affordable treatment and other social services in the community.

At least with regard to marijuana, Rhode Islanders have begun to recognize the toll that criminal enforcement takes. In 2013, the General Assembly decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana, and the use of marijuana for certain medicinal purposes has been allowed in the state since 2006. A concerted effort is expected to take place in 2017 for passage of a bill, supported by the ACLU of RI, that would legalize, tax and regulate marijuana.

The ACLU’s Brown said: “This report is yet another wake-up call about both the overcriminalization of private conduct and the significant racial disparities that permeate our criminal justice system at just about every level. We hope this report will not only encourage more positive consideration of the marijuana ‘tax and regulate’ bill, but will promote broader efforts by police departments to reconsider how they enforce these particular laws. The glaring racial disparities in enforcement of these laws have been going on for too long and must be addressed.”