Black Americans nearly four times more likely to be arrested for weed than whites
An analysis published by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has found that across the United States, black people are nearly four times more likely than white people to face arrest for cannabis-related offences, despite similar rates of use. While cannabis has been legalized in 11 states and the District of Columbia and decriminalized in 18, racial disparities in arrests persist, and in many states, have not improved.
The report, titled A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform, considers eight years worth of arrest data (2010 to 2018), and examines racial disparity at the national, state, and county levels. It found that in every state, regardless of state cannabis laws, black people were more likely to be arrested for possession.
In the United States, arrests related to cannabis still make up 43 per cent of all drug arrests, exceeding that of any other drug. According to data from the FBI, in 2018, police made more cannabis-related arrests than for all violent crimes combined. Nine out of 10 of these arrests were for possession. While nationwide arrests for cannabis have decreased since 2010, the rate of decline has plateaued, and in some places has even increased. In 2018, there were 100,000 more arrests for cannabis than in 2015.
In some states, rates of racial disparity were more severe: up to six, eight, and almost 10 times than that of white people. Those with the highest racial disparities included Montana, Kentucky, Illinois, West Virginia, and Iowa. What’s especially troubling is that racial disparities were actually higher in 31 states in 2018 than they were in 2010.
In all states that legalized recreational cannabis possession, arrests for possession fell over time. This also occurred in states that decriminalized cannabis, although the state of Missouri actually saw rates of arrest for possession increase after decriminalization. In decriminalized states, possession arrest rates were approximately eight times higher than in legalized states.
Between 2010 and 2018, arrests for sales also decreased significantly, down 81.3 per cent in states with legalized cannabis. In decriminalized states, they were down 33.6 per cent.
Despite all positive changes, racial disparities still persist, with some states seeing greater disparity in 2018 than in 2010. Even in states like California and Nevada, where disparities narrowed, black people were still more likely to be arrested for cannabis-related offences.
While the report does acknowledge the progress that has been made by legalization, the ACLU suggests that the legislative shift on its own is not enough to correct racial disparities.
“States must legalize marijuana, and do so as a matter of racial justice,” reads an ACLU commentary on the report. “This means not only legalizing marijuana with the specific goal of undoing some of the harms of decades of racist criminal legal policies, but pursuing broader reforms in the criminal legal system to ensure that the harms of the war on marijuana do not simply re-materialize in other ways after legalization.”
It calls for expungement and re-sentencing for past convictions, “so that hundreds of thousands of people — disproportionately Black and Brown — do not remain marginalized for prior offenses,” and suggests that police reforms be considered in legalization efforts. Divestment from law enforcement in favour of public health programs and community-based services should be explored, while states should develop more accurate data collection systems for policing.
“Only by centering racial justice in marijuana legalization, enacting more comprehensive reforms, and getting better data, can we not only get an accurate picture of the state of marijuana enforcement, but forge a more effective path forward.”
This article is available under a Canadian Creative Commons licence.