Racial Disparities Persist Despite Marijuana Legalization Measures

Photo Credit: Spencer Platt

Arrests for cannabis-related offenses have plunged in states that have legalized recreational use of the drug, saving jurisdictions hundreds of millions in policing costs and preventing the incarceration of thousands of people, but arrests continue to disproportionally affect racial minorities, according to a report released today (January 23) by the non-profit drug reform group Drug Policy Alliance (DPA).

“Marijuana criminalization has been a massive waste of money and has unequally harmed Black and Latino communities,” Jolene Forman, a staff attorney at the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement.

In Colorado, which approved a marijuana legalization measure in 2012, cannabis possession charges plummeted 88 percent—from 9,130 to 1,068—between 2012 and 2015, according to the report. Other states witnessed similar drops. In Alaska, cannabis sales and possession arrests nosedived by 93 percent from 2013 to 2015. And Oregon saw a 96 percent drop in marijuana arrests between 2013 and 2016.

Despite the dramatic drop in cannabis-related arrests, racial disparities in arrest rates—which skyrocketed after states enacted draconian drug laws in the 1970s and 80s—have proven more difficult to eradicate. Previous reports, written in the early days of the marijuana legalization movement, hinted at this. A 2016 Colorado Health Department study, for example, found that while marijuana-related arrests rates for White teens dropped by 10 percent between 2012 and 2014, arrests for Hispanic and Black teenagers rose by over 20 percent and 50 percent, respectively.

The DPA study released today bears similar numbers. Despite legalization, Blacks and Latinos remain disproportionate victims of racial profiling and over policing in low-income neighborhoods. Marijuana arrests rates were nearly three times as high as arrest rates for Whites in 2014, according to the DPA report. White arrest rates in Colorado dropped 51 percent between 2012 and 2014, while Latinos and Blacks witnessed a 33 percent drop and a 25 percent decline, respectively.

“[Rates of] African-Americans and Latinos charged with possession are going up,” said Representative Jonathan Singer, a member of Colorado’s State General Assembly, during a conference call announcing the DPA report. “It’s something we have to dig deeper on and look closer at—and, frankly, we’ve been struggling to not disproportionally affect communities of color.”

For drug reform measures to have equal impact on all racial communities, police departments must reform their practices, according to the report, by collecting arrest data related to gender, race, and location of arrests and then making this data available to the public.

Amid persistent racial disparities in cannabis arrest rates, some states have begun to code racial reparations into their legalization measures. California, which approved recreational legalization in 2016 and is expected to generate $1 billion annually in tax revenue, will allocate $10 million annually (increasing by $10 million each year until 2022) for non profits that serve communities disproportionally affected by past drug policies.

Massachusetts will dedicate revenue generated from its marijuana legalization measure, also approved in 2016, to back restorative justice and jail diversion programs.

“We’ve made a conscious decision not to exclude people [in marijuana-based businesses] based on past convictions,” Shaleen Title, commissioner of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission, told reporters on the conference call. ”We also tried to minimize barriers to the industry by keeping fees low, and we have an equity program to identify people who have been disproportionally harmed [by previous marijuana laws] so that they are on equal footing with everyone else.”

To date, sales and tax revenue generated by recreational marijuana sales have exceeded initial expectations, according to the DPA report. Colorado officials projected $70 million in annual revenue from marijuana sales before their measure took effect, but the state collected $193 million in 2017 and $205 million through October 2017. Virtually all states have exceeded expected revenues, according to the DPA report, despite the difficult task of setting a tax rate that compensates local governments and programs but doesn’t entice cannabis users to purchase from the black market instead of state-sanctioned dispensaries.

Despite the enthusiasm of the state-driven legalization movement, the drug remains illegal at the federal level, something the Trump administration underlined early this month when Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded an Obama-era directive allowing states to implement their cannabis-related laws without interference from the federal government. Sessions, in a move that generated bi-partisan furor, made it easier for U.S. prosecutors to enforce federal marijuana laws.

The Justice Department has yet to act on Sessions’ directive, and the drug remains in  murky legal waters. But the legalization movement, backed by popular support and increasing bi-partisan backing, has continued to steamroll ahead after the Sessions announcement.

Last week Representatives Barbara Lee and Ro Khanna, Democrats from California, introduced the Marijuana Justice Act, which would end federal prohibition on cannabis and allow states to establish their own policies. Sen. Cory Booker, (D-NJ) introduced the Senate version of the bill in August. And this week, Vermont became the ninth state to legalize recreational marijuana, and the first to do so through its legislature.