Unequal justice in pot arrests; Ky. blacks 6 times likely to be arrested

About the same percent of black and white Americans use marijuana. But blacks are almost four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession.

In Kentucky, the disparity is even worse; blacks are arrested for marijuana possession at six times the rate of whites.

What passes for casual fun in one neighborhood brands you a criminal and brings lifelong penalties across town.

While there are plausible explanations for why some areas receive greater police scrutiny than others, the racial disparity in marijuana enforcement should deeply trouble anyone who believes the criminal justice system should deliver justice.

When the system yields a result that is so unjust on its face, trust is diminished in the law, the courts and the police.

That's why findings released by the American Civil Liberties Union in a first of its kind study, "Marijuana in Black and White: Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests," deserve the attention of the judiciary, law enforcement, lawmakers and citizens.

Using FBI reports and census population estimates, the ACLU examined arrest rates for marijuana possession in all states, the counties and District of Columbia from 2001 to 2010.

The report observes that middle-class whites are unaware of the war on marijuana, or that it has become a war on people of color, for an obvious reason — they're not the targets.

Tolerance for recreational marijuana use has increased so much that Colorado and Washington have legalized it. Yet marijuana arrests increased during the 2000s and account for 52 percent of all U.S. drug arrests; 46 percent of all drug arrests were for possession of marijuana.

"In 2010, there was one marijuana arrest every 37 seconds, and states spent combined over $3.6 billion enforcing marijuana possession laws," says the report.

Those convicted of marijuana possession lose eligibility for student financial aid and public housing, along with employment opportunities and in some cases child custody.

It's hard to quantify the effect of being branded a criminal. But a marijuana arrest that makes it harder to get an education or job and worsens economic marginalization can propel a young person onto the prison track, an outcome that is costly to everyone as a potentially productive citizen becomes a public dependent.

Interestingly, marijuana arrests have declined in Kentucky since 2007, but the disparity between black and white has widened.

In Kentucky in 2010, marijuana possession accounted for 31.8 percent of all drug arrests, lower than the national rate, but perhaps a function of Kentucky's terrible problem with prescription drug abuse.

Nelson and Campbell counties had the largest racial disparities in marijuana arrests.

In Fayette and Jefferson counties, the state's largest, the racial disparity in marijuana arrests was not above the national average, but that's nothing to brag about.

The ACLU recommends a range of solutions from legalizing marijuana to decriminalizing its possession and classifying violations as civil rather than criminal.

Kentucky's legislature, which has taken more enlightened approaches to drug abuse and crime in recent years, should study whether marijuana penalties fit the crime and serve the public.

Meanwhile, law enforcement from the federal level to local police and sheriffs should do some soul searching and reprioritizing to make sure that policing efforts, no matter how sincere, are not creating a gross injustice.