Courtesy of Drug Policy Alliance and William C. Velasquez Institute

At a press conference hosted by Yes on 19 Wednesday, the National Association of Latino Officers became the latest in a string of large minority groups to endorse the marijuana legalization measure. The group cited a report, also released Wednesday, that illustrates the disproportionate criminalization of Latinos for marijuana possession.

With the election only six days away and the opposition to Proposition 19 leading in recent polls, Yes on 19 is making a big push to woo Latinos — a demographic group that represents one-fifth of California’s voters and could significantly impact the outcome of tight races like Prop. 19.

Latinos in California were arrested for marijuana at double to triple the rate of whites between 2006 and 2008, while Latinos use marijuana at much lower rates, according to the report released by the Drug Policy Alliance and William C. Velazquez Institute.

Racial disparity and the targeting of African American and Latino youth is at the heart of the 850,000 possession arrests made in California in the last 20 years, said Stephen Gutwillig, California state director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

Earlier this month, the organization released a similar report with the California NAACP that shows marijuana possession arrests for African Americans in 25 cities range from four to 12 times the rate of whites. The California NAACP and National Black Police Association have also publicly endorsed Prop. 19, citing the toll that U.S. drug policies take on communities of color.

“We need to concentrate more on severe violent crime,” said Manuel Rodriguez from the National Latino Officers Association at Wednesday’s press conference. “We have to worry more about terrorists, people getting killed, instead of going into communities and locking up Latinos and African Americans.”

There is enormous pressure on police officers to meet “performance measures,” or arrest quotas, added Gutwillig. Even though Governor Schwarzenegger signed legislation that reduces marijuana possession from a misdemeanor to an infraction, Gutwillig believes minorities will continue to be targeted disproportionately.

Young people probably won’t see relief even if Prop. 19 passes, Gutwillig said. Since the measure would make possession legal for people 21 years or older, police would likely focus on Latinos and African Americans under 21, he said.

“The issue is not to make it OK for youth to smoke, but why do we address it through criminalization?

“If Proposition 19 passes, the unfinished business will be to remove young people from this kind of law enforcement scrutiny, particularly young black and brown kids.”

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Walking in the streets of the Mission takes Lauren back to the streets of South America. Up until now, she’s known the Mission through its bars and restaurants; now it’s the buzz on Mission Street that attracts her. She loves listening to the Spanish in the streets.

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