New Study Finds Racial Disparities in South Dakota's Marijuana Arrests

In South Dakota You Can be Arrested for Possession of Less Than 1 Gram of Weed – Most of these Arrests are of African American and Native American Residents.

Activist and blogger, Samantha Jo, wrote "small-town South Dakota ruined me" as an introduction to a blogpost about growing up black in South Dakota. The legalization of weed in states such as South Dakota, where possession of just a small amount of marijuana in carries a potential penalty of a year in jail and a $2,000 fine, and even owning a bong can put you at risk for a misdemeanor charge, up to 30 days in prison, and up to a $500 fine, is an issue of race. It is an issue of race when the prison systems in some states are clogged with African American inmates who committed marijuana related crimes, while the state next door has legalized recreational cannabis use. 

According to Marijuana Moment, black residents and Native Americans are, on average, been more than five times as likely to be arrested for cannabis compared to white people, even though, according to Business Insider, "both groups consume marijuana at about the same rate". In 2018, nearly 1 in 10 arrests in South Dakota were for marijuana related offences, 95% of these arrests were for possession, and majority of the possession arrests were for seven grams or less, with 40% for one gram or less. Additionally, 98.2% of marijuana offences in South Dakota were categorised as stand-alone offences, meaning that the offenders were never charged with any other crime.

From the above statistics, it is clear that the strict marijuana laws disproportionately target black and Native American citizens, who are very unlikely to reoffend or commit any violent or harmful offences, and that the South Dakota police force is spending a significant amount of energy and funding chasing up residents with minute amounts of marijuana in their possession. South Dakota is not alone in its trend to institutionally target minorty groups in its weed laws. Business Insider suggests that the illegal nature of cannabis "has some roots in racist rhetoric pushed by politicians" and to legalize weed is to liberate many imprisoned minorities.

The prosecution and incarceration of marijuana users supports racism in the United States.Sandra Cook Carlsen, sociologist

Marijuana advocate Brendan Johnson, CA-A sponsor and former US Attorney for South Dakota, is quoted in Cannabiswire as stating the "prohibition does not work…it's time, for the interest of our economy as well as the next generation, to get this right" and legalize the use of marijuana for adults over the age of 21. Organisations like New Approach PAC Mission recognise this need to end the prohibition, stating their mission is "to support the reform of marijuana laws and progressive causes, including but not limited to, support of state ballot initiatives and candidates." Further, according to a study represented by Marijuana Moment, approximately 60% of South Dakota voters said they favor recreational legalization, while more than 70% said they support medical cannabis legalization.

Advocate of marijuana law reform, Chuck Parkinson, elucidated the arguments above by rationalising the ineffectiveness of law enforcement in the 'battle' against weed in a statement to the Capital Journal: "In the last 35 years, we have spent billions of dollars fighting marijuana trafficking and usage, and have arrested and incarcerated hundreds of thousands of Americans at an incredibly high cost to taxpayers."

However, as always, there is hope – on the horizon is Constitutional Amendment A, a proposal for legalizing marijuana for adults aged 21 and over, that is going to vote in South Dakota on November 3rd. This amendment was made possible by South Dakota Secretary of State Steve Barnett, who, along with a team of volunteers and campaigners, collected 53,000 signatures to qualify the amendment to go to ballot in 2020. South Dakota Marijuana, a proponent organisation of the amendment, insists "the eleven states that have legalized marijuana for adults and thirty-three medical marijuana states, none have chosen to repeal their laws" as an indication that legalization is a decision that will bring South Dakota prosperity and progress.

Ultimately, with the legalization of marijuana tied up so intrinsically with issues of racism, prejudice laws and the economy, South Dakota citizens have a heavy decision to make when voting on November 3rd.

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Mikayla Chadwick
Mikayla Chadwick

Mikayla Chadwick is a Melbourne-based writer, focused on human and legal rights, global affairs and popular culture. Mikayla holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree and is currently completing a research degree in sex work policy reform.

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