Claiming the state’s marijuana laws are discriminatory against African-Americans, a prominent marijuana advocate is hoping the Connecticut courts will take action.
Attorney Aaron Romano, who serves as legal counsel for the Connecticut chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), is set to make oral arguments Nov. 15 at Middletown Superior Court, representing a defendant charged with possession.
Romano said Friday it does not matter to the policy argument that his client, William Bradley, is white. Romano said he is trying to rid the state of its punitive marijuana laws, which he said are racially discriminatory.
“Once the statute is passed with a racial discriminatory purpose, it does not matter who is challenging it,” Romano said. “The fact that my client is white makes no difference.”
Unable to post a $150,000 bond, the 49-year-old Bradley has been in jail on a violation of probation charge after being arrested for possession of 1.75 pounds of marijuana. While Romano said Bradley, a cancer patient from Clinton, was using the drug for medicinal purposes, the state disagreed. Bradley had been on probation for being caught previously with 8.5 pounds of marijuana.
Romano calls the current case a landmark because this is the first time the courts will look at whether the state’s marijuana laws discriminate based on race.
To back up his argument, Romano will have statistician Jon Gettman speak Nov. 15 before Superior Court Judge Maureen Keegan. Gettman is a professor at Shenandoah University in Virginia, and has a master’s degree from American University in criminal justice specializing in drug policy.
Gettman originally performed a study for NORML of Connecticut’s arrest rates by race for marijuana possession.
“We have data dating back to 1994 that shows African-Americans are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana sale and possession than their white counterparts,” said Romano, a solo practitioner from Bloomfield.
Specifically, Romano said, Gettman analyzed the FBI’s own database on offense, demographics and race.
In 2015 in Connecticut, Romano said, arrest rates for every 100,000 whites were 57.01, while it was 213.78 for every 100,000 African-Americans. In Connecticut, whites are about 80 percent of the population compared to 11.1 percent for blacks. In actual numbers in 2015, Romano said, more whites were arrested only because they are 80 percent of the population. In raw numbers, Romano said, 1,655 whites and 894 African-Americans were arrested for possession and sale of marijuana in the state in 2015.
Romano said marijuana laws throughout the country—including in Connecticut—”were passed around the same time as the Jim Crow laws were enacted. Its original intent was to disenfranchise minority people from being able to vote.”
Marijuana laws on the books today stem from “institutionalized racism,” Romano said. “We accept it, and that is the way we do it. It’s the status quo. We are not critically analyzing our laws and our motivations for passing these laws. There is discriminatory intent.”
Romano said he’s optimistic about victory, saying: “There are moments when the courts step in and says what the legislature has done is unconstitutional. Sometimes upholding the law means striking down a law.”
Longtime New Haven attorney Hugh Keefe said whether or not Romano wins will be based on his scientific evidence.
“If he has the science to back him up he is in good shape, otherwise it’s a dead issue,” said Keefe, a partner with Lynch, Traub, Keefe & Errante.
John Thomas, professor of law at Quinnipiac University, has a different take on the issue.
“I think he’s conflating two issues,” Thomas said Friday. “One is the law itself, and the second is enforcement. The law on its face is not discriminatory. It applies to everyone in the state equally,”
Thomas said, though, “it’s important to point out that the enforcement of many laws, especially drug laws across the United States, burdens minority communities more so than white communities. For evidence of this, just look at the incarceration rates of minorities before and after the war on drugs.”
Russell Zentner, senior assistant state’s attorney, is representing Connecticut in the Bradley case. Zentner was not available to respond to a request for comment.