Racist cannabis arrests put Black Americans at higher risk of Covid-19

A bag of cannabis sits on the hood of a car as a suspect is arrested.
A bag of cannabis sits on the hood of a car as a suspect is arrested.
Image: Reuters/Daniel Becerril
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The US’s war on drugs has plagued its communities of color for decades. As Michelle Alexander and Ta-Nehisi Coates have written, the program of drug enforcement and mandatory prison sentencing since the 1960s picked up where institutionalized racist practices such as Jim Crow and redlining left off. Jail sentences cut off access to basic freedom, and criminal records locked people of color out of opportunities for access to basic necessities, whether an education, a job, or an apartment lease.

Now, as Covid-19 ravages overcrowded facilities unequipped to handle the pandemic, those jail sentences are increasingly becoming death sentences.  The New York Times has traced hundreds of thousands of cases, and seven of the top 10 coronavirus clusters it identified originated in prisons and jails. As of June 9 the Times counted at least 64,000 people infected in US jails and prisons, where at least 589 inmates and workers have died.

Even as cannabis reform sweeps the nation, offering Americans access to state-regulated cannabis-infused gummies and designer vape pens—and entrepreneurs the opportunity to sell them—poor people are still behind bars for possessing or selling the plant. Statistically speaking, there’s a very good chance those people are Black.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reports cannabis arrests still make up some 43% of all drug-related arrests, the vast majority of which are for possession, as opposed to more serious charges such as distribution or sale. A 2017 study by the National Registry of Exonerations found that Blacks were five times as likely as whites to go to prison for drug possession—despite that surveys show whites use drugs as much or more than Blacks in the US.

In some places the statistics are markedly worse. In 2018, Blacks and Latinos accounted for nearly 90% of arrests (pdf) for cannabis possession in New York City ,despite being just 51% of the city’s population. And in every single state, Blacks were likelier than whites to be arrested for cannabis possession. (Florida and Washington, DC did not provide data.)

A Covid-19 model published by the ACLU in April showed that halving arrests by eliminating those for minor offenses—which often land a person in jail until or unless they can post bail—could save thousands of lives in jails and surrounding communities. Some local governments have taken action by releasing prisoners serving short or nearly finished sentences or those being held pretrial, but federal prisons have been slow to release relatively few inmates.

To be sure, the majority of those incarcerated in US state prisons are not there for drugs, but for violent offenses. But cannabis activists and companies link the fight for decriminalization and legalization to the US history of systemic racism, arguing US cannabis policy is overripe for reform. Covid-19, which is already killing Black Americans at a rate higher than whites, only exacerbates their urgency.

“We will not fundamentally change policing practices in this country until we put an end to the war on drugs, and it starts with ending the prohibition on cannabis,” wrote Steve Hawkins, who heads up the Marijuana Policy Project, adding that legalization would eliminate the principle pretext for racist police stops. “While cannabis legalization alone will not save Black and Brown lives, it offers an opportunity to re-center policing away from a focus on the drug war to a focus on community healing and positive relationship-building. In that, there is hope.”