Does race matter: Who gets busted for marijuana?

7News finds black and white marijuana users take very different risks.
7News finds black and white marijuana users take very different risks.


A 7News Investigation reveals that Upstate police are cracking down hardest on marijuana sales in the area’s poorest and blackest neighborhoods.

Three years of booking data from the Greenville County Detention Center show that blacks make up nearly two-thirds of arrests in felony cases involving more than an ounce of marijuana – despite the county being mostly white.

“We’ve been dealing with this so long,” Greenville NAACP President J.M. Flemming said of 7News’ findings. “There’s all kinds of truth here.”

To Greenville County Sheriff Steve Loftis, however, the 7News analysis points not to a sign of race-based policing, but instead to an economic problem within the communities bearing the brunt of the arrests.

“I think that further education, better education, people trying to improve themselves for economic reasons plays a part in it, because when you look at a distribution of marijuana charge … (the suspect is) in it to make money,” he said.

At the heart of 7News’ investigation is a single question – what does the typical pot smoker look like? Are they white? Black? Hispanic? Or Asian? Are they rich? Or are they poor?

Studies show that typical marijuana users come from all backgrounds. From all races, including white and black. And from all income levels, rich and poor alike.

And most likely from every zip code in Greenville County.

Experts at the Phoenix Center, the county’s drug treatment facility, said marijuana is everywhere.

“There’s definitely a culture of ‘you know this is okay for me to do because everyone is doing it,’” the Center’s Elizabeth Serricchio said.

For example, nearly half of South Carolina’s high school population has tried weed at least once, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

That same report, from 2013, noted that black, white and Hispanic people have similar rates of marijuana use.

And because most of the people in Greenville County are white, it should come as no surprise that most of the users and dealers treated at the Pheonix Center also are white.

It’s “middle-class Caucasians,” Serricchio said.

Yet in Greenville County, it’s not the white, middle-class suburbs where people pay the price for breaking the law.

7New looked at nearly 300 arrests – in 2012, 13 and 14 – involving suspects charged with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, a charge based not on whether a drug sale is in progress, but instead on the amount of weed possessed by the defendant.

In the city of Greenville, where white people make up 77-percent of the population and blacks 19-percent, blacks account for 68-percent of the defendants arrested, the review revealed.

The statistical revelation did not surprise Flemming.

“The influence and the folk who control the law live in (a white) neighborhood,” he said. “Not in the black neighborhood.”

The 7News Investigation also revealed that the majority of arrests are happening in neighborhoods with disproportionately large black populations.

Greenville Police Chief Ken Miller said this is because those same communities have the higher levels of poverty and violent crime.

“I don’t know that there’s more marijuana in those neighborhoods,” he said. “I think what’s happening is we’re in those communities.”

Police Department data shows that low-income neighborhoods call 911 at higher rates and therefore is where most marijuana arrests occur, Miller added.

The fact that those arrests involve so many black defendants is coincidental, the police chief said.

The 7News investigation revealed a similar pattern with arrests by Greenville County deputies. In those cases, 60-percent of the felony marijuana arrests involved black suspects.

In fact, the county zip code – 29605 – with the highest percentage of black residents also has the highest number of arrests on our key charge of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.

City and county law enforcement made 68 arrests here over a three-year period. By contrast, the county’s four zip codes – 29690, 29669, 20650 and 29681 – with the greatest number of White residents combined logged just 15 arrests.

Said Sheriff Loftis of the discrepancy: “Several explanations for that – first of all, we do not target people because of race. We target the people that are committing crimes.”

Loftis later handed 7News a report he penned in an attempt to show a wider set of social problems plaguing many black communities.

The sheriff’s report notes that black people:

  • Have greater high school dropout rates
  • are more likely to be suspended from school
  • are less likely to attend college
  • are less likely to find employment
  • and on average make less money on the job

And so more black people are nabbed on our key felony marijuana charge because the higher poverty levels lead more of them to pursue an “illegal means to make money,” Loftis argued.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time (the people arrested are) in it to make a profit,” the sheriff said. “You know it’s not for personal use.”

However, as noted earlier in this story, the charge possession of marijuana with intent to distribute is not based on whether a drug sale is in progress or has been set up. Instead, it simply means that someone was nabbed with one ounce or more of marijuana.

Also, a 2014 study by the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, shows that young, white people are 32-percent more likely to sell drugs than anyone else in America.

In fact, statistics logged by the Phoenix Center note that both the area’s average pot smoker, as well as the pot dealer, are white and from middle-class areas, the opposite of the demographic most often booked into the Greenville County Detention Center on the felony marijuana charge.

The sheriff’s statements left Jil Littlejohn, of the minority-based civic group the Urban League of the Upstate, shaking her head.

“I find it very hard to take him serious after some of the things he has said,” she stated.

Her take on the findings of the 7News Investigation, combined with that of the Phoenix Center, is that one demographic of the community appears to commit the crime more often, but that it’s another demographic paying the price.

“When you talk to students about who’s bringing drugs to school and who’s doing things … a lot of them don’t look like me (black), they’re just not getting caught,” she said.

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