Pot Arrests Show Racial Disparity Still a Problem in Colorado

By Zachary Siegel 05/11/15

Marijuana may be legal, but that has not stopped police from targeting minority users.

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Despite the legalization of marijuana in Colorado, there are still racial disparities in those being charged with weed-related crimes, according to a Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) report released last month. The Drug Policy Alliance is a pro-legalization non-profit organization headed by Ethan Nadelmann.

The report demonstrates arrests in Colorado virtually stopped after marijuana was made legal to carry in small amounts (less than one ounce) for people 21 and older. The only marijuana-related crimes that remain are smoking in public, possessing above the one-ounce limit, and illegal cultivation.

Two years before and after the legalization in 2012, the study examined drug arrests in all 64 of Colorado’s counties. After legalization, blacks were more likely to be charged with all three remaining marijuana crimes: growing pot, possessing above the legal amount, and public consumption.

Colorado director of the DPA, Art Way, said to the Associated Press, "Legalization is no panacea for the long-time issues that law enforcement have had with the black and brown community.”

"Despite the unsurprising racial disparities, these massive drops in arrests have been enormously beneficial to people of color,” said Tony Newman, communications director at the DPA.

Tom Gorman, a top official at the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (RMHIDTA) program, assures that police officers are not using racial profiling towards marijuana users.

Gorman told the Associated Press, "Racial disparities exist in other laws. What does that mean, that homicide law, rape laws, weapon laws are racist? There are other factors going on here that we need to address."

With respect to illegal cultivation of marijuana, the racial disparity is particularly bleak. Two years before legalization, in 2010, whites in Colorado were more likely to be arrested for cultivating marijuana. After legalization, the arrest rates for cultivation saw a dramatic reduction in the white population. By 2014, however, the arrest rate for black people was nearly 2.5 times higher.

“This report reminds us of how law enforcement and our judiciary are now able to better allocate time and energy for more pressing concerns,” said Denise Maes, Public Policy Director for the ACLU of Colorado.

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.