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Arrest disparity a serious problem, with no easy answer [Editorial]

It's become painfully clear that criminal behavior, substance abuse and mental health problems have certain links that lead to plenty of social ills.

Over indulgence in alcohol resulting from one or another kind of mental anguish can result in offenses ranging from assault to manslaughter by motor vehicle to any number of other things.

Not everyone who deals with mental health issues, however, is prone to drug misuse issues. Moreover, recreational use of alcohol is perfectly acceptable in our society.

When it comes to alcohol, it is commonplace to draw distinctions between use and abuse, between social indulgence and dependence and to regard dependence as a health problem.

The same isn't necessarily true for most other illicit drugs, and with good reason. Many are fairly dangerous. Increasingly, however, marijuana has become an intoxicant that is regarded as being nearly as socially acceptable for recreational use as alcohol, even as it remains as illegal as heroin and other so-called hard drugs.

The American Civil Liberties Union has recently reported that in Harford County, while marijuana usage rates among blacks and whites are comparable, blacks are much more likely to be arrested on marijuana related charges than whites.

Moreover, the ACLU reports that, while blacks make up about 13 percent of Harford County's population, 23 percent of the people arrested in the county are black.

It's a charged issue. The implication in the ACLU report is that racism of some variety is at play.

Indeed, it would be foolish to presume there's not some element of racism involved. Segregated schools and drinking fountains, after all, are part of the living memory in the Harford County of 2013. Nationally, we may have become progressive enough to elect a black president, but that doesn't mean racial divides have all been overcome.

It also would be foolish to presume the issue is one of overt, institutional racism of the variety that kept Harford County Public Schools segregated for a full decade beyond the Supreme Court decision outlawing the practice.

Individually, and collectively, we are products of our past and all are influenced by our parents and the other people around us. It is possible to outlaw racism in practice, but its vestiges, like the vestiges of any other long standing social behavior (or in this case, misbehavior), can linger even after attitudes have shifted.

Even as Prohibition was being repealed to make alcohol legal again, marijuana was being made illegal. It was argued that social alcohol use was rampant, but it funded a vast criminal network of suppliers. The same argument is made today in favor of legalizing, or at least decriminalizing, marijuana. If it's not illegal, there's no reason for a criminal network to meet the strong demand.

When the issue of race is added to issues of chemical use and abuse and the association of drug abuse with criminal activity, people of different heritages can leap to a fair number of unfair conclusions about people of other backgrounds.

The lesson to draw from the ACLU findings about race and arrest rates on marijuana charges isn't that closet racists need to be rooted out of the criminal justice system. The more likely explanation is that old habits, especially bad ones, die hard.

In modern society, most people would take great offense at being called a bigot, and with good reason. While prejudices were perfectly acceptable – though wrongly so – in the first half of the 1900s, they are considered perfectly appalling now in civilized company.

Still, we're accustomed to acting in certain ways, and may not even recognize when we do something that's tinged with the unacceptable behaviors of an earlier generation.

It is all too easy to draw an extreme conclusion from things like the ACLU report on marijuana arrests in Harford County. One might be that the ACLU is just looking for racists where there's no racist intent or, on the other end of the spectrum, would be to conclude that there's inherent racism in the law enforcement community that needs to be rooted out.

Possibly, a more rational conclusion is that our history and the numbers speak for themselves: There is a problem, but it's not one with an easy solution.

But a solution needs to be found – be it changing marijuana policy, reviewing police practices or something else - because our society is such that what's bad for one group is bad for us of all. When it comes down to it, unfairness that can be visited on one person or group without consequence, can be visited on another group or person in the future with just as much impunity.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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