A new report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) finds that while more and more states are reforming their marijuana laws, cannabis possession arrest rates in the US are still nearly four times higher for people of color than they are for white people.
The ACLU’s report notes that cannabis arrests have decreased overall in states which have either legalized or decriminalized marijuana possession, but cannabis-related arrests in those states (for illicit sales or high volume possession) still suffer from glaring racial disparities. Meanwhile, in states where cannabis remains illegal, arrest have actually increased between 2010 and 2018 and in some of those states, black people are almost ten times more likely to be arrested than white people. These findings come in spite of the fact that marijuana consumption rates across races are almost identical.
“In every single state, Black people were more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, and in some states, Black people were up to six, eight, or almost ten times more likely to be arrested. In 31 states, racial disparities were actually larger in 2018 than they were in 2010,” the report’s authors wrote.
The highest racial disparities for marijuana arrests at the state-level were found in Montana and Kentucky, where people of color are more than nine times as likely to be arrested than white people. The two states with the lowest racial disparities for cannabis arrests, Colorado and Alaska, legalized marijuana in 2012 and 2014 respectively but African Americans are still 1.5 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than white people.
“Racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests exist across the country, in every state, in counties large and small, urban and rural, wealthy and poor, and with large and small Black populations,” the report continues. “Indeed, in every state and in over 95 percent of counties with more than 30,000 people in which at least 1 percent of the residents are Black, Black people are arrested at higher rates than white people for marijuana possession.”
The report’s authors state that racial disparities in marijuana law enforcement in states that have legalized or decriminalized cannabis possession is a consequence of marijuana reform policies which are not rooted in social and racial justice.
“Most jurisdictions that have enacted progressive marijuana policy have failed to do so from a foundation of racial justice,” the report reads. “As such, though legalization and decriminalization appear to reduce the overall number of marijuana possession arrests for black and white people alike, such laws have not substantially reduced, let alone eliminated, the significantly larger arrest rates of black people.”
The report’s authors point to the examples of Maine and Massachusetts, which both voted to legalize marijuana in 2016, as proof that marijuana reform does not necessarily result in reduced racial disparities. Both states have actually seen racial disparities in marijuana arrests increase in 2018 compared with 2010.
A 2018 report from the Drug Policy Alliance similarly found that even as marijuana arrest rates decreased in legal states, racial disparities in law enforcement persists. This is true of Washington, D.C. which did not provide the ACLU with data for the most recent report, but a 2016 analysis by the Washington Post revealed there had been no change in racial disparities for marijuana arrests almost two years after the district voted to legalize cannabis.
But the overall trend, as acknowledged in the ACLU report, is that “[o]n average, states that have legalized marijuana possession had lower racial disparities in possession arrests in 2018 compared both to states that have only decriminalized and states where marijuana remains illegal.”
NORML’s political director Justin Strekal welcomed the decline in overall arrests whilst cautioning that racial disparities in law enforcement cannot be solved by marijuana reform alone.
“While we are pleased to see the overall number of possession arrests dramatically decline in legal states, the persistent racial disparity among those who are arrested for violating marijuana laws speaks to a larger underlying problem with the way in which law enforcement often interacts with citizens, particularly communities of color,” Strekal said.
“The legalization of marijuana is not a panacea to solve the structural problems of systemic racism that persist in America. Nevertheless, legalizing and regulating cannabis reduces the total volume of marijuana arrests as well as one of the primary reasons for police interactions with the public — interactions that have been historically abused by police against people of color,” Strekal added.
The full text of the ACLU’s report, “A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform,” can be found online.
The release of the report coincided with the 420 marijuana holiday where police departments across the country, even in states where cannabis possession remains illegal, took to social media with lighthearted weed-related jokes and puns.