Published in Crain's Chicago Business June 7, 2013

It is not hard to imagine that someone, somewhere across the nation, has been arrested every 37 seconds for the past nine years. But who would have thought that those arrests were for possession of marijuana? FBI data reveal that there has been a marijuana arrest in the United States every 37 seconds of each and every day since 2010 — a total of more than 8 million arrests.

Indeed, since 1995 the number of marijuana arrests nationally has grown by more than half. This is curious, since during that period public opinion has changed radically, with a majority of Americans now saying that they favor legalization of marijuana.

Illinois contributes significantly to the staggering number of marijuana arrests and the increase as well. In 2010, of the more than 50,000 marijuana arrests in the state, nearly 98 percent were for possession — not sales — of marijuana.

How can we explain the large number of marijuana arrests in Illinois? Who is being arrested for marijuana use? Is it suburban high school students hanging out on a weekend? Do most arrests come from young professionals or college students living on Chicago's North Side?

The answer is no. According to a new report by the American Civil Liberties Union, "The War on Marijuana in Black and White," the number of marijuana arrests has risen over the past several years almost entirely as a result of increased enforcement and targeting of minorities.

There is no real explanation or justification for targeting young people of color. We know that African-Americans and whites use marijuana at the same rate across their population. One would think, therefore, that these groups would be arrested at approximately the same rate. Not so. African-Americans nationally are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for a marijuana offense. In Illinois, that rate more than doubles to 7.6 times. In three Illinois counties, African-Americans are more than nine times more likely to be arrested.

The cost to taxpayers of financing these racially disparate policies is enormous. Estimates are that Illinois spent as much as $221 million to support marijuana enforcement in 2010. Nationally, it is estimated that taxpayers will spend $20 billion over the next six years.

Still, rates for the use of marijuana are unchanged.

It is time to recognize that the war on marijuana has failed. It costs too much, diverts precious law enforcement resources from addressing criminal activity that poses a danger to our communities and drains away money that should be used for education, job training and social services that benefit our communities.

Recently, the city of Chicago began a policy where police have the option of issuing a ticket for marijuana possession. That's a good start. But we must go further. It is time to depenalize and decriminalize marijuana possession. That will shift law enforcement resources — and tax dollars — back to higher-priority items.

Cross-posted from Crain's Chicago Business.

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