PORTLAND - Blacks are twice as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana possession in Maine, despite the fact that they use marijuana at the same rates, according to a new report out from the nationwide American Civil Liberties Union. In York County, blacks are five times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession – higher than the national average of just under four times.

“The failed war on drugs has cost Maine millions of dollars and disproportionately swept people of color into the criminal justice system, but it has done little to reduce drug use or availability,” said Shenna Bellows, executive director of the ACLU of Maine. “It’s time to say ‘enough is enough,’ and put our resources into passing reforms that are more fair and do a better job of keeping our communities safe.”

The report, Marijuana in Black and White: Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests, is national in scope and is the first ever to examine state and county marijuana arrest rates nationally by race. The findings show that while there were pronounced racial disparities in marijuana arrests 10 years ago, they have grown significantly worse.

According to the report, there were 2,842 arrests for marijuana possession in Maine in 2010, accounting for 47.9% of all drug arrests. 75 of them, or 2.6 percent, were arrests of black people, even though black people made up only 1.2 percent of the population.

The report estimates that Maine spends $8.8 million on marijuana possession enforcement annually - including police, judicial and legal services, and corrections expenditures. Nationally, states spent an estimated $3.61 billion enforcing marijuana possession in 2010 alone.

“The aggressive policing of marijuana is time-consuming, costly, racially biased, and doesn’t work,” says Ezekiel Edwards, Director of the Criminal Law Reform Project at the ACLU and one of the primary authors of the report. “These arrests have a significant detrimental impact on people’s lives, as well as on the communities in which they live. When people are arrested for possessing even tiny amounts of marijuana, they can be disqualified from public housing and student financial aid, lose or find it more difficult to obtain employment, lose custody of their child, and be deported. In addition, the targeted enforcement of marijuana possession laws against people of color creates a community of mistrust and reduced cooperation with the police, which damages public safety. Furthermore, despite being a priority for many police departments across the states for the past decade, the aggressive enforcement of marijuana laws has not even accomplished one of law enforcement’s purported goals: to eradicate or even diminish the use of marijuana.”

The report recommends that states legalize marijuana by licensing and regulating marijuana production, distribution, and possession for persons 21 or older, taxing marijuana sales, and removing state law criminal and civil penalties for such activities, which it says would eliminate the unfair racially- and community-targeted selective enforcement of marijuana laws. In addition, at a time when states are facing budget shortfalls, taxing and regulating would allow them to save millions of dollars currently spent on enforcement while raising millions more in revenue, money that can be invested in public schools and community and public health programs, including drug treatment.

In Maine, LD 1229 would send the question of marijuana legalization directly to the voters. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Diane Russell, appeared on the House calendar today and will be voted on by the full House and Senate soon. The ACLU of Maine supports the bill.

The full report is online here. Comprehensive Maine statistics are in the appendix on page 155.