Police in D.C. are far more likely to arrest Blacks than Whites for marijuana-related offenses, five years after the city enacted reforms that proponents hoped would end racial disparities in enforcement.
Although marijuana arrests have declined by more than half, African Americans still account for just under 90 percent of those arrested on all pot-related charges, according to a Washington Post analysis, even as they make up 45 percent of the city’s population.
And while studies show that marijuana use is equally prevalent among Blacks and Whites, 84 percent of more than 900 people arrested for public consumption in the nation’s capital were African American in the four years after legalization.
At a time when police treatment of African Americans is a focus of broad concern, the analysis echoes national studies that have shown the persistence of racial disparities as enforcement has declined in states where marijuana has been legalized.
A D.C. police spokeswoman declined to comment on the disparity, noting that arrests for consumption or possession of small amounts of marijuana have declined significantly since legalization.
But advocates and defense attorneys said police still focus on the city’s poorer, mostly Black neighborhoods because that’s where officer deployments and investigations of violent crime are concentrated.
Marijuana-related arrests, they said, are an entree for police to gather information about other alleged crimes.
“They can use the odor of burning marijuana or street sales to pat people down for weapons or check for outstanding warrants,” said Paul Zukerberg, a defense lawyer who has represented clients arrested on pot charges. “They try to turn people into involuntary informants or state witnesses.”
D.C. Superior Court does not maintain statistics for the dispositions of marijuana-related arrests. A Post review of more than 100 such cases shows that charges are often dropped or prosecutors negotiate plea bargains with probationary sentences. When defendants refuse a plea, prosecutors in some instances have abandoned cases, especially when relatively small amounts of marijuana are involved.
Although punishments are often minimal, Zukerberg said a marijuana arrest — no matter the outcome — often requires visits to court and other costly disruptions.
“It can hurt people’s chances of getting employment and passing background checks while the case is pending,” he said. “And a case can be pending for weeks, months and years.”
When advocates campaigned for Initiative 71, as the 2014 referendum measure for legalization was known, a main selling point was that the reform would erase the gap between the numbers of Blacks and Whites penalized for using a drug that has wide appeal.
By then, a robust movement to relax marijuana laws across the country had emerged. A key driver was a 2013 American Civil Liberties Union study that revealed wide inequities in enforcement nationwide, including in D.C., where police were eight times as likely to arrest Blacks as Whites for possession.
The passage of Initiative 71 allowed individuals 21 or older to possess up to two ounces of marijuana on D.C. land, cultivate as many as six pot plants at home, give gifts of up to an ounce and possess drug paraphernalia such as pipes and bongs.
But Republicans in Congress did not allow the city to eliminate penalties for public consumption or the buying and selling of cannabis. As a result, street dealers remain a focus of “buy and bust” police investigations.
“The goal was to not only eliminate the criminality associated with cannabis but to establish a regulatory system for distribution,” said G. Malik Burnett, a leader of the reform effort. “When there’s a gray area, police are able to enforce what they feel they should enforce.”
Earlier this month, the D.C. Court of Appeals voted 2 to 1 to overturn the conviction of a man charged with possession with intent to distribute, a decision that proponents of pot reform seized on as a victory.
During a 2017 traffic stop in Southeast Washington, U.S. Park Police caught Darnell Kornegay, 25, who is African American, with 1.7 ounces of pot, a digital scale, 23 empty plastic bags and $769 in cash. But Judge Catharine F. Easterly wrote that the amount of pot Kornegay had “did not exceed” the city’s legal limit and that no one witnessed a sale.
“This ruling continues to show that the police need training on what the law says,” said Adam Eidinger, the lead organizer of the Initiative 71 campaign. “They need to see this as a signal that they’re misinterpreting the law.”
Before legalization, Blacks accounted for nearly 89 percent of the police department’s 8,092 pot-related arrests from 2012 to 2014, The Post’s analysis shows. After legalization, between 2015 and 2019, there were 3,631 marijuana arrests. Eighty-nine percent of those arrested were Black.
Black people are arrested disproportionately more than White people, despite a decline in total arrests
In 2015, the year pot was legalized, overall arrests plummeted from 2,095 to 314. Since then, the volume of arrests has risen, reaching 1,007 in 2018 before falling to 798 last year, the data shows.
Arrests for possession dropped from 2,488 in 2012 to 22 in 2015, and have remained around that number since. But annual arrests for public consumption seesawed from under 100 to more than 250 before declining. After initially decreasing, arrests for distribution or intent to distribute have tripled in the past four years.
D.C. police spokeswoman Kristen Metzger said in an emailed statement that the department “respects the intent” of Initiative 71 and “makes very few arrests” for smoking pot in public or possession.
But Metzger also said that the department “takes illegal distribution, especially where it is linked to violent crime, very seriously and we will continue to protect our residents by enforcing these laws.”
The Post’s analysis was drawn from a list of more than 11,500 marijuana arrests between 2012 and 2019 provided by the police department in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. The data does not include arrests made by other law enforcement agencies, including U.S. Park Police.
Men accounted for 89 percent of all marijuana arrests during the eight-year period. Of those males, 90 percent were Black. Nearly 65 percent of those arrested were between ages 18 and 30.
Before and after legalization, just over 40 percent of the arrests occurred in Wards 7 and 8, which include the District’s poorest and most heavily African American neighborhoods. By contrast, less than 1 percent of all arrests occurred in Ward 3, which encompasses neighborhoods such as Cleveland Park and Friendship Heights, which are predominantly White and among the city’s most prosperous.
A more racially diverse district, Ward 1, which includes Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights, accounted for nearly 16 percent of the arrests since legalization.
D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), chairman of the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, described the disparities as “very discouraging,” especially in light of the national focus on racial justice after the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis.
“It gets back to the heart of what the protests have been about — uneven and unfair enforcement in policing along racial lines,” Allen said. “We can change the laws, but if we don’t change the nature of policing, we’re not creating the impact we want.”
Felony charges are rare
A “strong odor of marijuana” wafting from Alexandre Foy’s car caught the attention of the police officer who stopped him in 2018 for failing to heed a pedestrian crossing signal outside the Watergate apartment complex.
Foy, then 35, an African American man from Lanham, was already on probation in Maryland for pot possession and distribution, something the officer learned after entering his name in a police database. A search of the car turned up 10.2 ounces of pot and nine vials of THC oil, according to court records.
“I had to do it, I gotta feed my kids and family — I need the cash,” Foy said, according to the police complaint filed in court. Foy denied he was selling pot when reached by The Post. But he pleaded guilty to distribution after prosecutors reduced the charge from a felony to a misdemeanor. A judge suspended a six-month prison sentence and placed him on six months’ supervised probation.
His case was among 115 marijuana arrests The Post reviewed that occurred between May 2018 and the end of 2019. In about 70 percent of the cases, prosecutors either declined to file charges or dropped the case, or the charges were dismissed. In about 10 percent of the cases, a guilty plea resulted in probation.
Douglas Jefferies, among the 304 Whites arrested for marijuana between 2015 and 2019, was one of the few charged with a felony. Investigators found more than 24 pounds of pot, 512 edibles and $16,483 in cash last September at a Dupont Circle mansion he owned, court records show. The mansion, which Jefferies no longer owns, had hosted pop-up marijuana shops.
It was Jefferies’s third arrest in less than a year. In November 2018, officers raiding the mansion seized more than six pounds of pot, dozens of pot-infused candies, scales and $2,210 in cash. Jefferies pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and was sentenced to time served.
Four months later, he was arrested again after police discovered nearly two pounds of pot and $6,400 in cash in his Connecticut Avenue hotel room. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, and a judge sentenced him to six months’ probation.
In his current case, court records show that Jefferies and prosecutors recently entered into a “stet agreement,” which typically signifies that charges will be dropped if a defendant meets certain conditions.
Jefferies did not respond to calls or text messages. Jefferies’s lawyer, Marnitta King, and a spokesperson for the U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment.
Earlier this year, a national ACLU study found that Blacks are 3.6 times as likely as Whites to be arrested for marijuana, a rate “roughly the same” as in the organization’s study in 2013.
Jon Gettman, a Shenandoah University criminal justice professor, said the racial disparity is fueled by police being deployed to high-crime areas that tend to be poor and predominantly Black.
“It’s not that police are looking for weed busts in Anacostia,” Gettman said. “It’s that there’s a lot more police activity in general in Anacostia than, say, Cleveland Park. It really has to do with the concentration of enforcement efforts.”
But Vida Johnson, a Georgetown University law professor who teaches in the school’s Criminal Defense and Prisoner Advocacy Clinic, said police make a concerted effort to look for illegal drug activity in Black neighborhoods.
“Rather than go to American University or George Washington’s campus, where we know there are marijuana sales, they’re focusing on poor communities of color that are mostly African American,” she said.
“And to what end?” she asked. “We have already decided as a community that marijuana isn’t dangerous.”
‘Rarely worth the effort’
In Trey McNeil’s case, according to court records, undercover officers staking out an apartment building in Southeast Washington in 2019 said they saw him handing what they believed was a package of drugs to another man in exchange for cash.
Police moved in to arrest McNeil, then 27, an African American who lived in Congress Heights. Searching him, they found just over an ounce of pot, a digital scale and $117. He was charged with possession with intent to distribute.
McNeil, who could not be reached, rejected a plea offer. Several months later, after his lawyer filed a motion challenging the legality of the search and arrest, prosecutors dropped the case.
“I wasn’t surprised,” said Joseph McCoy, McNeil’s court-appointed lawyer. “These things are rarely worth the effort to prosecute.”
Sometimes a pot bust is a precursor to a more serious crime.
In April 2019, a judge sentenced Ja’amonte Jeter, 21, to 12 months’ probation after he sold $20 of marijuana to an undercover officer on Benning Road NE. In Jeter’s pockets, according to court records, police found an ounce of weed, three Xanax pills, $129 and a scale.
Ten months later, after Jeter had violated his probation, police charged him with shooting a man in the lower back across the street from where he was arrested for selling the pot.
As part of a plea agreement, Jeter admitted to attempted assault with a dangerous weapon and carrying an unlicensed pistol. A judge released Jeter from jail in August and placed him on home confinement while he awaits sentencing.
Raymond Perry, 29, was among the 220 people charged in 2018 for smoking pot in public. A team of undercover narcotics officers “observed” him getting high while he was in a lawn chair on a sidewalk in Northeast Washington, according to court records.
Reached by phone recently, Perry said the officers handcuffed him and took him to the police station, where he was fingerprinted and issued a citation requiring him to appear in court. At the hearing, he paid a $25 fine.
“I thought it was some BS, but they were like, ‘You’re not supposed to be doing it,’ ” said Perry, who described himself as an Uber driver and a rap artist.
He said he is more cautious about smoking pot in public since the arrest. But that doesn’t mean he won’t light up.
“I’m smoking right now,” he said.