Even after legalization, black Americans are arrested more for marijuana offenses

Racial disparities stick.
Racial disparities stick.
Image: Reuters/Brian Snyder
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Americans have finally come around to pot. There has been a historic shift in public opinion for legalizing marijuana over the last generation. And as public mode changed, so did the law; marijuana has now been legalized in eight states and Washington, DC (though the extent of legalization differs between states).

While legalization led to dramatic reductions in the number of arrests for marijuana, racial disparities persist. That’s the conclusion of a recent report by The Drug Policy Alliance, a drug policy reform organization, which analyzed the impact of legalizing marijuana on the criminal justice system, public health, road safety, and the economy.

Black and Latino people use and sell drugs at a similar rate to other racial groups, but they are far more likely to be arrested and prosecuted. This racial disparity didn’t change after marijuana was legalized, the report notes.

“Initial data show that while legalization substantially reduced the total number of black and Latinx people arrested for marijuana offenses, it did not eliminate the forces that contributed to the disparity in the first place, such as the over policing of low-income neighborhoods, racial profiling, and other racially motivated police practices,” researchers note in the report.

Most states legalized marijuana with limits on where it can be consumed and how much someone can possess or grow it. Alaska legalized marijuana in 2015, but restricted the amount of marijuana someone could possess to 1 ounce. The law also stated that people couldn’t harvest more than 4 ounces in their home, or consume marijuana in public.

After 2015, marijuana arrests plummeted in the Alaska. The marijuana arrest rate for white and black Americans dropped by nearly 99% and more than 93%, respectively. But the report’s authors point out that Alaska’s marijuana arrest rate for black people (17.7 per 100,000) is still ten times greater than that of white people (1.8 per 100,000).

The report found a similar pattern in Colorado. White people benefitted the most from marijuana legalization, with arrests decreasing by 51% for white people, compared to 33% for Latino people, and 25% for black people between 2012 and 2014. By 2014, the marijuana arrest rate for black people (348 per 100,000) was nearly triple that of white people.

The overall post-legalization arrest rate for black people in Washington DC is reported to be double that of other races. The report notes that despite decriminalizing marijuana in 2014, public consumption of marijuana is a criminal misdemeanor (residents can consume the product on private property).

The report found that a black person in DC is 11 times more likely than a white person to be arrested for public consumption of marijuana. There are also significant racial disparities in California and Nevada.

The disparity in marijuana use across racial groups is low—in 2010, 14% of blacks and 12% of whites reported using marijuana in the past year, and in every year from 2001 to 2010, more whites than blacks between the ages of 18 and 25 reported using marijuana in the previous year, according to an analysis of federal data from the American Civil Liberties Union (pdf).

“To fully remedy the unequal enforcement of marijuana laws, police practices must be reformed,” the Drug Policy Alliance report concludes. The Drug Policy Alliance calls for an end in racial profiling and for police departments to promote accountability and transparency by collecting search, citation and arrest data, and using this data to evaluate and reduce racial disparities in enforcement practices.