FARGO — In North Dakota and Minnesota, black people are more than five times more likely than white people to be arrested for possessing marijuana, even though both groups use pot at similar rates.
That's according to a report issued by the American Civil Liberties Union this spring, which ranked North Dakota and Minnesota seventh and eighth, respectively, among the states when it comes to racial disparities involving pot arrests. The report details and compares marijuana arrests from 2010 to 2018.
To document arrest rates per 100,000 for marijuana possession by race at the state and county levels, the report relies on the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program, data from jurisdictions not included in that program, and the U.S. Census annual county population estimates.
Nationwide, black people are 3.6 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, the report said.
In every state, black people were more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession and in some states black people were up to six, eight or almost 10 times more likely to be arrested, according to the report, which found that in North Dakota and Minnesota black people were about 5.5 times more likely than white people to be arrested for possessing pot.
In Morton County, with a county seat of Mandan, N.D., black people were about 9.6 times more likely to be arrested than white people for marijuana possession, while in Cass County the disparity factor was about 8.6, the report said.
The Mandan Police Department declined to comment for this story, and officials with the Morton County Sheriff's Office questioned the report's numbers and conclusions.
Lt. George Vinson of the Fargo Police Department said he wasn't aware of the recent ACLU report, or how it arrived at its findings.
On the subject of police interaction with minorities, Vinson said Fargo police have four community trust officers whose primary mission is to create positive engagement in the community, particularly when it comes to minority populations.
He said that positive outreach, which is augmented by the department's school liaison officers, is a response to public perceptions that police are only interested in bringing wrongdoers to justice.
He said Fargo police are trying to "create some positive interactions and relationship building to try to steer youth away from the criminal justice system." That can be done a number of ways, he said, including the utilization of diversionary programs and mentoring.
"We focus on minority youth, our team does, because of the perceived lack of trust we see nationwide, and maybe here a little bit in Fargo, too," Vinson said, adding that the message they want kids to hear is: "We want to put you in a situation where you can have the best possible outcome in your life."
The ACLU report said Minnesota counties where black people were most apt to be arrested for pot possession more often than white people included Goodhue and Olmsted counties, where the magnitude of the arrest disparity factors were 11 and eight, respectively.
In Clay County in Minnesota, black people were four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession, the report said.
William Jordan Jr., president of the NAACP Minnesota/Dakotas Area State Conference, said that while he hadn't reviewed the ACLU report, marijuana arrest numbers are just one area where disparities exist for black Americans, adding that things like racial profiling and discrimination in housing and employment have been a major issue in places like Minnesota for years.
"If you look at the disparities in Minnesota, they're some of the worst in the nation. It's been said in different reports that it's the second worst place to live for African Americans," Jordan said.
He also pointed to a recent report issued by the NAACP called the Twin Cities Economic Inclusion Plan, which explored myriad social and economic challenges faced by blacks in Minnesota.
Jordan said incarceration rates are a telling indicator of racial disparity in the state. He cited the recent NAACP report which stated that while black people make up 9% of the population in the Twin Cities, they are incarcerated at a rate 11 times higher than whites, who make up 76% of the population.
He said despite reports like those issued by the ACLU and the NAACP, issues involving racial disparity don't seem to be improving. "The situation is getting worse," Jordan said.
Clay County Sheriff Mark Empting declined to comment on the ACLU report, stating it wasn't clear to him where the report's numbers came from, or what methodology was used in arriving at its conclusions.
Empting provided numbers from the Clay County Jail that showed the jail admitted a total of 3,328 people in 2019. Of that number, 2,178 were identified as white and 490 were identified as black. The numbers were similar for 2018.
The ACLU report identified Montana, Kentucky, Illinois, West Virginia and Iowa as states with the highest racial disparity involving pot arrests, citing disparity factors of 9.6, 9.4, 7.5, 7.3 and 7.2, respectively.