Even With Legalization, Black Americans Disproportionately Arrested For Pot

By Kelly Burch 01/31/18

Although marijuana arrests dropped significantly in states where recreational use was legalized, not everyone benefitted from the reduction.

Male hands in handcuffs

Marijuana legalization has been praised as one way to begin addressing the vast racial disparities in the U.S. legal and correctional systems, but a new report shows that even in states where marijuana has been legalized, black Americans are still arrested for marijuana offenses much more than their white counterparts.

The report, commissioned by the Drug Policy Alliance, addressed a number of issues related to marijuana legalization, including social justice.

Researchers looked at data from Washington, D.C. and eight states that have legalized marijuana (Vermont, the ninth state to legalize recreational use, was not included in the report because the policy only changed earlier this month).

The report found that overall, arrests for marijuana-related offenses dropped significantly in states where recreational use was legalized.

In Washington, D.C., for example, marijuana arrests decreased 76% from 2013 to 2016. In Alaska, marijuana arrests for possession and sales/manufacturing declined by 93% from 2013 to 2015.

“The reduction in arrests has resulted in substantial savings, estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars, for law enforcement and the judiciary,” the authors wrote. “By no longer arresting and prosecuting possession and other low-level marijuana offenses, states are saving hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of adults are no longer getting stopped, arrested, charged or convicted simply for possessing a small amount of marijuana.”

However, not everyone benefitted equally from the reduction in arrests. Black individuals remained significantly more likely to be arrested for marijuana charges, according to an analysis by Vox.

In Alaska, black Americans were about 10 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses after legalization passed. In that state, black residents were arrested for marijuana at a rate of 17.7 per 100,000 in 2016, while white people were arrested at a rate of 1.8 per 100,000. While arrests among whites decreased 99% following legalization, blacks saw a decrease of only 93%.

In Washington, D.C., where possessing and growing marijuana is legal but selling is not, arrests for possession among both black and white Americans decreased 99% after legalization. Still, blacks were four times as likely to be arrested for possession than their white counterparts.

In Colorado, black residents were about three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses than whites and Hispanics.

Although overall, many fewer people are being arrested (and presumably incarcerated) for marijuana offenses, the fact that arrest rates remain many times higher in the black community while marijuana use rates are similar among blacks and whites shows that there is still a host of social justice work to be done.

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.