Charleston NAACP: Police should closely look at study on marijuana arrests

Dot Scott, left, president of the Charleston Branch of the NAACP, speaks at a news conference on a recent study by the ACLU that said black people were nearly three times more likely than whites to be charged with marijuana possession in South Carolina. The Rev. Joseph Darby looks on. Brad Nettles/staff

Brad Nettles

If a report indicates that black South Carolinians are 2.8 times more likely than whites to be arrested on marijuana charges, local advocates think police agencies should do something about it.

But when the Charleston County sheriff brushed off the study and other top lawmen were silent about the topic this month, Charleston NAACP President Dot Scott was disturbed, she said Monday.

The American Civil Liberties Union found that the racial disparities in arrests for marijuana possession in 2010 were prominent in Charleston County, though five other South Carolina counties ranked higher on the list.

After it was published in early June, Sheriff Al Cannon criticized the study as biased and a possible result of cherry-picking statistics to support a theory. Marijuana charges often result from a suspect’s other crimes, he said.

Scott has invited Cannon and local police chiefs to provide evidence for such a contention during a town-hall meeting with residents June 27. She also asked to see data on arrests for methamphetamine, “an overwhelmingly white drug of choice,” she said.

If police departments were to eradicate racial profiling, the disparity in arrests on minor marijuana possession also would fall, she said.

“If not, then we need to be screaming at the leadership of those departments,” Scott said. “If we’ve got that level of a problem, then we must address it.”

The call to action by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is not a new one. Advocates such as Scott have long been critical of area agencies, primarily the North Charleston Police Department, for what they call a failure to address black residents’ concerns that they are unfairly targeted.

They said the recent ACLU study provides proof that action is needed.

Besides Cannon, who plans to issue a response to Scott on Tuesday, local police chiefs have remained silent on the report.

Spokesmen for three of the largest police forces in Charleston County said their chiefs were unavailable for comment Monday. Charleston’s Greg Mullen was in a meeting, and North Charleston’s Eddie Driggers was out of the office, the spokesmen said. Mount Pleasant’s Carl Ritchie would “absolutely not” comment on the topic, Maj. Stan Gragg said.

During the news conference, Scott cited an example in which the nephew of an NAACP member was arrested in North Charleston last month when he was accused of having two marijuana seeds during a traffic stop. She said taxpayer money would be better spent going after the people who sell the drug instead of those who have a small amount for personal use.

South Carolina spent $49,540,640 enforcing marijuana laws in 2010, the ACLU study found.

Thomas Dixon, a North Charleston community advocate and pastor of Summerville Christian Fellowship, said the sheriff’s recent comments regarding the marijuana study could rub off on deputies.

“When you have that type of attitude coming from our sheriff ... then that attitude can’t do anything but filter down to his subordinates,” Dixon said. “The dismissive attitude that comes from our sheriff just carries over into his people.”

The ACLU ranked South Carolina law agencies 13th among 38 states that reported an increasing racial divide in marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010. The rate rose here by 57.4 percent, the ACLU found.

The Post and Courier could not immediately obtain statistics for individual jurisdictions.

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